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Three ODU Oceanographers to Rush Season for Arctic Climate Science Research

Hill previously did Arctic research during an expedition on an icebreaker. Note the small image of the polar bear that is on the ice below the ship.

Most scientific research in the Arctic Ocean region is done during the summer when the weather can be almost hospitable and there is more open water in which to take measurements and conduct experiments. But three young oceanographers from Old Dominion University will be rushing the season in the frozen north this year with projects beginning in March and April.

The three were chosen to work with the Catlin Arctic Survey, an initiative of the Catlin Group, Ltd., the international provider of specialty insurance and reinsurance that is based in Bermuda. The company launched the survey three years ago with the declaration of its top executives that "climate change and other environmental changes are creating a new set of risks for the insurance industry and its policyholders."

"Because the Arctic is an extreme environment, it has been historically difficult to collect data in anything other than the summer months. So our understanding of the winter and spring-time processes has been lacking," said Victoria Hill, a research assistant professor in ODU's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, who will be traveling in early March to the Catlin Ice Base. The camp is in Canadian territory on Ellef Ringnes Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Hill will be working during March and April with David Ruble, an oceanography research associate, to collect measurements related to Arctic Ocean surface warming. Their focus is on chromophoric dissolved organic material (CDOM) in the Arctic waters, and how the material might affect solar heating of the waters. A National Science Foundation grant is helping to support the project.

In addition to the scientific research, Hill will be beaming back live webcam programs from the Ice Base to schools in Hampton Roads and to the Virginia Aquarium.

The CDOM that Hill and Ruble will be studying is the optically measureable component of dissolved organic matter in water, and is sometimes called "yellow substance." The color primarily comes from tannins released by decaying organic matter; waters look green, yellow-green and then brown as the amount of CDOM in them increases.

The CDOM also absorbs solar energy, increasing the solar heating in Arctic waters. The project of the ODU oceanographers will study the sea ice as both a wintertime storage mechanism for CDOM and a substrate for ice algae that produce CDOM. Once this material is released into the surface waters they will investigate the relationship between the optical properties of water and surface heating, as well as the longevity of CDOM within the system. .

Richard Zimmerman, professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and the leader of the ODU Bio-Optical Research Group, is the principal investigator supervising the CDOM project from Norfolk. He and Hill were up well before dawn one day in late January to participate via teleconferencing in a live media briefing in England about this year's Catlin Survey.

"The links between climate and specific weather events are extremely tenuous," Zimmerman said in remarks he prepared for Catlin. "At its heart, climate represents an average condition integrated over large expanses of space and time. Weather varies from day to day.

"This year's cold, snowy weather in the eastern U.S. appears to be related to patterns of the North Atlantic Oscillation - in a negative phase at the moment - and El Nino-Southern Oscillation cycles which are currently exhibiting La Nina cold phase conditions across the equatorial Pacific, among other things. These oscillations affect the transport of heat and moisture into the Arctic and down across eastern North America. But all this is still weather, not climate.

"However, all the climate models indicate that extreme weather events - dry, wet, hot, cold, hurricanes, tornadoes - will become more frequent as the climate warms. In that sense, the extremely hot summer of 2010 and the extreme cold/snow events we've experienced this winter, dipping way down below the Mason-Dixon Line, not to mention devastating tornadoes in January, are consistent with climate model predictions. We can expect more extreme weather events as the climate warms. We just can't predict when, or where, they will occur."

Hill, who has worked with Zimmerman's group for the past seven years, said polar research is important because the Arctic acts as a sentinel system for climate change. "The effects of climate change have been more rapid there than in other parts of the globe." Hill and Ruble have done research previously in the Arctic region, but in warmer months.

The poles also play a critical role in global circulation. Cold and salty water sinks there, driving the global ocean conveyor belt (the thermohaline circulation) and influencing currents such as the Gulf Stream. "The worry is that with less sea ice and warmer and fresher Arctic waters, this deep, cold water will no longer be formed at the same rate and could slow down global circulation," Hill said.

"We are also concerned with the effects of retreating sea ice on those animals that rely on ice for transport, breeding and food, including some of those iconic creature such as walruses, seals and polar bears."

Hill is also enthusiastic about explaining her work as a scientist to the public, and especially to school children.

"When all people hear is the sensationalism from television, it's difficult to see the true story. Understanding the complexity of our global system is tough. We have to understand how processes all work together and our predictions, constantly improve as we collect more data," she said.

"I would love to see more students interested in oceanography and other environmental sciences, and feel that a large part of my research is telling people about my work. As a young student I had no idea what a real scientist did, so I enjoy passing along my experiences and, hopefully, my passion for science."

So far, Hill has scheduled webcam connections with Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School and Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, and a school in Hill's native England.

For a separate project extending through the month of April - it involves an expedition ranging out from the base onto open ice - ODU postdoctoral researcher Oliver Wurl will be studying the effect of ocean acidification on the marine carbon cycle under the Arctic ice sheet. Wurl joined the ODU research group of Greg Cutter, professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, last June soon after he finished a 2010 expedition of the Catlin Arctic Survey. "I cannot wait to start this year's journey," he said.

Wurl's trip this year will give him a chance to continue research he started in 2010. He and colleagues are looking into gel-like particles that are sticky and tend to collect tiny organisms and other specks that have high carbon content. "Then, when these aggregates sink they accelerate the carbon export to the deep ocean and have therefore an important role in the marine carbon cycle and carbon sequestration," he said.

Catlin expeditions during the past two years have been exciting journeys involving both explorers and scientists. Last year, one expedition reached the North Pole.

This article was posted on: January 19, 2011

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