Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

In The News: July and early August

Obama assigns Arctic Science Policy to White House

In July, the White house announced that Arctic science policy oversight will now fall under a White House council organized by President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren. Under the new organization, the council’s environment and natural resources committee will oversee activities of the federal Interagency Arctic Research and Policy Committee. The move underscores the significance of the committee, which was originally created by Congress in 1984. It surveys arctic research to help set federal priorities in natural resources, physical and biological sciences and social and behavioral sciences. The same act of Congress established the Arctic Research Commission, a presidentially appointed group that recommends broad arctic policy goals. The commission has seats for four scientists, two private industry representatives and an indigenous leader.

Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier Loses 2.7 Square Mile Ice Chunk

Satellite images show a major calving event on the Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier, July 6 and 7. Photo: Courtesy of NASA via DigitalGlobe

NASA-funded researchers monitoring Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier report that a 7 square kilometer (2.7 square mile) section of the glacier broke up on July 6 and 7, causing the calving front—where the ice sheet meets the ocean—to retreat nearly 1.5 kilometers (a mile) in one day. The chunk of lost ice is roughly one-eighth the size of Manhattan Island, New York.

Research teams led by Ian Howat of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University and Paul Morin, director of the Antarctic Geospatial Information Center at the University of Minnesota have been monitoring satellite images for changes in the Greenland ice sheet and its outlet glaciers. While this week’s breakup itself is not unusual, Howat noted, detecting it within hours and at such fine detail is a new phenomenon for scientists.

Jakobshavn Isbrae is located on the west coast of Greenland at latitude 69°N and has retreated more than 45 kilometers (27 miles) over the past 160 years, 10 kilometers (6 miles) in just the past decade. As the glacier retreated, it broke into a northern and southern branch. The breakup this week occurred in the north branch.

Scientists estimate that as much as 10 percent of all ice lost from Greenland is coming through Jakobshavn, which is also believed to be the single largest contributor to sea level rise in the northern hemisphere. Scientists are more concerned about losses from the south branch of the Jakobshavn, as the topography is flatter and lower than in the northern branch.

July Melting Sea Ice Data Released

The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, CO., reported that the ice extent for July 2010 was 8.39 million square kilometers, the second lowest on record. Although this year’s melting is significant, it likely won’t set a new record. The report also reveals that older, thicker multi-year ice continues dramatic declines.

Meteorite May Affect Beaufort Sea Probe

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy is probing deep in the Beaufort Sea to map the Arctic shelf. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Canadian and U.S. scientists aboard two government research vessels must navigate around a two-million-year old meteorite deep in the high Arctic as they attempt to probe the depths of the northern Beaufort Sea. The meteorite is believed to be lodged in the submerged peaks of Alpha Ridge — a 2,000-km-long undersea mountain chain off of Canada’s northernmost shores, about 300 kilometers beyond Ellesmere Island. Both Canada and the U.S. are trying to prove that parts of the Arctic seabed are extensions of the North American landmass, key to asserting political authority over those areas under provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

To that end, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent are heading north in early August to continue the two nations’ collaborative Arctic mapping mission in the shadow of Alpha Ridge.

Navy Subs Help Scientists Expand Study of Arctic Thaw

The New York Times reports that scientists who study Arctic ice have signed an agreement with the U.S. Navy to use nuclear powered marine subs to collect information on parts of the Arctic’s ice and ocean that normally lie beyond scientists’ reach. The agreement revives a program called SCICEX — short for “Science Ice Exercise” — that began in 1993, and which went dormant after six years.

Now, with data documenting Arctic warming that led to a historic low in summer sea ice in 2007, the shortening of the region’s snow season, rising land surface temperatures and warmer permafrost, and changes in the population and habitat of polar bears, walruses, seabirds and other Arctic wildlife, scientists and the Navy are collaborating to restart the SCICEX program.

SCICEX will allow scientists to use submarines that can travel at high speed and operate even in areas that are covered by ice instead of icebreaking ships to collect data. The subs will also provide data to help “ground-truth” satellite measurements. The submarines can also collect data on ocean chemistry that satellites cannot.

The renewed SCICEX program will operate under a memorandum of understanding inked in 2000 between the National Science Foundation and parts of the Navy. The new science plan calls for collection of baseline data on the Arctic’s ice canopy and seafloor and the physical, chemical and biological properties of Arctic seawater.

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