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Oceanographer Enduring Arctic Cold to Study Warming of Northern Waters

Oceanographer Victoria Hill in Arctic Camp

Home for Old Dominion University oceanographer Victoria Hill during the next few weeks will be an unheated tent she has pitched on sea ice in the Arctic. The temperature there dips at night as low as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the breath that escapes from the mouth opening of her mummy-like sleeping bag freezes and drops back onto her as ice crystals.

But, as she reports in the Scientific American blog "Expeditions," any dedicated climate-change researcher would be happy to endure these conditions in order to get the sort of samples that are available right now in the frozen north.

"The reason that I am here is the Catlin Arctic Survey 2011, a wonderful opportunity for me to collect data in the early Arctic spring," she wrote on the Scientific American blog March 16. "My nervousness at living in this extreme environment for so long … is tempered by my excitement at being able to collect the data that I have been thinking about for the past three years."

The full blog report is at http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=destination-arctic-2011-03-16/.

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 Hill and two other young oceanographers from ODU are rushing the season this spring.

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 springtime processes has been lacking," said Hill, a research assistant professor in ODU's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, in an interview before she left for the Catlin Ice Base on Ellef Ringnes Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Hill is working this month and in April with David Ruble, an ODU 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.

For a separate Catlin Survey project extending through the month of April - it involves an expedition ranging far 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.

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.

She also is contributing to news reports about the Catlin project, such as this one from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/americas/03/11/arctic.survival/.

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 increases.

The CDOM also absorbs solar energy, increasing the 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. They also 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.

This article was posted on: March 21, 2011

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