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42. SHEBA Program - Nifty 50

Icebreaker Des Groseilliers

Credit: University of Washington

The ice station SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean) was a large NSF endeavor that studied the Arctic ice pack, a sheet of frozen sea water the size of the U.S.A.

This sheet of ice is an interactive element in the global climate system and is also a great impediment to shipping routes across the top of the world between Atlantic and Pacific industrial centers.

Researchers hope to learn more about the fate of the ice pack, which has in recent years lost about 10 percent of its lateral extent and about 25 percent of its thickness.

Frozen in ice

The SHEBA project involved about 160 researchers who spent one to two months at a time on an icebreaker frozen into the Arctic ice pack for more than a year, measuring all of the physical factors that could cause the ice pack to disappear in a few decades.

SHEBA was the largest undertaking in the Arctic by NSF-supported researchers. The project deployed weather balloons, drifting buoys, satellites, radar, aircraft and even a nuclear submarine.


From their project, NSF researchers have reported the following:

  • The Arctic is predicted to be the first place on Earth to sense the start of global warming and the effects will be most dramatic there due to climatic feedback that occurs in the Arctic;
  • If the melting continues, the ice pack could disappear, although not within living humans' lifetime. There are indications the ice pack has existed for several million years.
  • Melting of the ice pack could be accompanied by changes in climate, storm patterns and intensity, ocean circulation, northward migration of pests and diseases and coastal erosion;
  • There is increasing evidence that the thinning of the ice pack this decade is the result of global warming. The data from SHEBA are necessary to address the questions surrounding the predictions of global warming in the Arctic and will not be fully examined for years due to the enormous size of the data set;
  • The extensive amount of data collected during SHEBA will be instrumental for addressing the numerous questions related to the role of the Arctic in climate change and global warming.

Original publication date: April 2000

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