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Dennis Darby, a paleoclimatologist on the Old Dominion University faculty who has made more research trips to the Arctic Circle than he can count on his frostbit fingers and toes, begins an International Polar Year (IPY) expedition Aug. 12 that may be his most interesting visit ever to the frozen north.

The expedition is of special import because of concerns about global warming. Paradoxically, another spur for the research is an international, undersea land grab-with oil, gas and mineral deposits at stake-that owes some of its momentum to the current warming trend that is melting polar ice and making some portions of the Arctic more accessible to ships.

During the first few days of August, international news agencies reported Russia's ceremonial placing of a flag on the ocean bottom nearly three miles below the North Pole ice cap. The country said it was dramatizing its claim to undersea land extending from its northern shelf all the way to the top of the Earth. Officials in Canada, which may compete with Russia for some undersea Arctic zones, denounced the ceremony as a show for the media.

Darby will visit the North Pole in early September, and his expedition, too, will involve Russians. But in this case, the Russians will be mercenaries helping Denmark stake its own claim to valuable zones of the Arctic.

The ODU professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, will be participating in the LOMROG expedition, so called because it involves work along the submerged Lomonosov Ridge off Greenland. The 1,200-mile ridge runs from the central Siberian continental shelf, through the North Pole, and to just north of Greenland. He will be aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which begins the five-week research cruise from Tromso, Norway, on Aug. 12. The expedition is sponsored by Sweden, as well as Denmark.

Some of the thickest ice in the Arctic is in the area where the Oden will focus its research. Winds and currents tend to jam up ice in this region between Greenland and the North Pole, creating ridges in the floes that are 60-100 feet thick. Darby and about 30 other researchers on the Oden expect to accomplish the first ever bottom mapping and coring at some locations.

To break a path in and out of this ice-packed territory during the expedition, the Danish government is spending $2 million to hire the extraordinary new Russian icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Freedom), which will be making its maiden voyage into the Arctic. This icebreaker, the largest and most powerful ever, is 50 percent larger than the United States' premier polar icebreaker, the Coast Guard cutter Healy, and sports a dual-nuclear-reactor propulsion system that generates 75,000 horsepower, more than twice that of the diesel/electric Healy.

Construction of the 50 Let Pobedy and other icebreakers in her class is evidence of Russia's focus on the Arctic. The vessels were designed to keep northern sea lanes open from Murmansk north of St. Petersburg, through the Siberian and Bering seas, to Vladivostok near North Korea. In fact, all shipping between Europe and the Far East could benefit from dependable passage through the northerly route. The distance from Rotterdam to Yokohama, Japan, via the Suez Canal, is about 11,000 nautical miles. The distance between the same cities via the northerly route is 7,000 nautical miles.

Russia needs the lanes open, too, in order to exploit vast deposits of oil and gas on the country's Arctic shelf. Furthermore, as the North Pole flag planting shows, Russia is trying under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to stake claims to huge amounts of Arctic Ocean territories where it hopes someday to accomplish deep-sea oil drilling and mining. To stake these claims, Russia-as well as Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States-must prove that portions of the Arctic Ocean bottom are continuations of each country's landmass.

Geological evidence must back up the claims and that is where scientists such as Darby come in. He said his LOMROG expedition was organized in part because of Denmark's desire to lay claim to the ocean bottom off Greenland (which is a territory of Denmark). "Claiming undersea land is the main reason the Danish government is willing to spend $70,000 a day on the Russian icebreaker," Darby said.

As a climatologist, he is more than happy to tag along. He is interested in sediment from sea ice and the ocean bottom that holds secrets about weather patterns going back millions of years in the Arctic region. Weather trends in the Arctic have a major impact on weather elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists are eager to learn how much, if any, of the present global warming has been caused by predictable weather cycles rather than manmade pollution.

Darby has perfected a unique fingerprinting technique for sand grains that guarantees him invitations to Arctic research expeditions. He can determine the landmasses where grains of sediment originated, which provides evidence about winds and currents-and therefore the overall weather patterns-that brought the grains to their resting place. Various techniques are used to date layers of sediment.

Two years ago, Darby was a chief scientist on a first-of-its-type trans-Arctic expedition by the Healy and Oden. His analysis of some of the core samples from the 2005 expedition, as well as from another expedition in 2004, does show evidence of predictable temperature flip-flops. A story in the March 16 edition of Science magazine noted that Darby sees evidence in sediment of a 240-year freeze-thaw cycle. He told Science that he believes "this periodicity must be connected to some ocean-circulatory pattern that presumably still exists but has not yet been noted in modern times."

Darby has gotten one National Science Foundation grant to pay for his analysis of sediment samples and is awaiting word on a second grant. "There is much more to learn. We are having trouble dating some of the samples," he explained.

Researchers on the Oden will be using sophisticated new seismic equipment to map the ocean bottom and will extract cores from the same bottom. Darby will help with the coring, and will be in charge of collecting "dirty" ice samples, which is sediment embedded in ice. For this he will fly by helicopter from the Oden and land at sites that look promising. The brief Arctic summer gives way to snow by late August, he said, and this can complicate the search for dirty ice.

"My warm summer in Virginia is about to come to an abrupt halt," he said a few days before his departure.

This article was posted on: August 3, 2007

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