James Morison of the University of Washington—principal investigator for the North Pole Environmental Observatory—takes samples from a hole drilled through the Arctic sea ice.
Credit: National Science Foundation
Arctic Ocean circulation and the water flowing from the Arctic into the Greenland Sea affect the deep circulation of the Atlantic Ocean and thus play an important role in regulating climate. To more closely observe and understand such changes, an international scientific team supported by NSF has established a polar research camp known as the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO).
Led by oceanographer James Morison of the University of Washington, NSF-supported scientists from Oregon State University, as well as others supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Naval post-graduate school, and the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center, are conducting an array of experiments at the North Pole to understand this little known, but extremely important region.
To collect year-long information about ice thickness and movement, water temperature and salinity, and the speed and direction of underwater polar currents, the team deploys a system of floating buoys on a mooring line that stretches more than two-and-a-half miles from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, to within feet of the constantly shifting polar ice pack. That's longer than Mt. Rainier is high.
Teams of scientists also drill through ice—often more than 12-feet thick—to install buoys that measure air temperature through the ice cover. Imbedded in the ice automated sensors that send detectors on hundred-mile treks—from the North Pole to Greenland, for example—to measure heat fluctuations in the upper ocean. Even subtle changes in air and water temperature can mean large variations in the thickness of ocean ice.
In order to measure changes in seawater chemistry, Morison and coworker, Kelly Falkner of Oregon State University, sampled water nearly a mile below the ocean surface—from an aircraft.
Even using submarines and icebreakers, it is difficult to obtain long-term measurements of temperature and other important climate variables at the North Pole. NEPO’s drifting research stations are designed to provide a mix of coverage over time and in a wide geographic area.
"The observatory really fills a hole in our scientific observations," says Morison. "The station, and others like it, will provide a set of data taken reliably over a long period as a benchmark for the study of climate change."