Twin science projects seek to understand impacts of Arctic climate change

The German icebreaker and research vessel Polarstern is pictured at the port of Tromso, Norway Sept. 18, 2019. (Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/NTB scanpix/Reuters)
Two major international science projects involving hundreds of scientists from around the world are underway in the Arctic seeking to understand the dramatic changes happening in “the epicenter of climate change” and their effect on the rest of the planet.

The first mega-project involves an international team of researchers, who set off Friday on the biggest and most complex expedition ever attempted in the central Arctic, a yearlong journey they hope will sharpen the scientific models that underpin human understanding of climate change.

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC for short, will see 600 scientists from 19 countries, including Germany, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Canada, work together in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet.

“The Arctic is the epicentre of global climate change,” expedition leader Markus Rex of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research said ahead of the launch, reports The Associated Press. “At the same time, the Arctic is the region of the planet where we understand the climate system least.”

Expedition leader Markus Rex and Pauline Snoeijs-Leijonmalm attend a news conference about the polar expedition MOSAiC with the vessel Polarstern in Tromso, Norway Sept. 20, 2019. (Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/NTB Scanpix/via Reuters)

Packed full of scientific equipment, the German icebreaker RV Polarstern left the port of Tromso in northern Norway on Friday accompanied by a Russian vessel, the Akademik Fedorov, to search for a suitably large floe on which to anchor.

As the days get shorter and the sea freezes around the vessel, crews will race to set up research stations on the ice. Then the Polarstern and the network of camps are set to slowly drift toward the North Pole, with rotating teams of dozens of scientists spending two months conducting research on the ice.

While scientists involved in the MOSAIC project drift trapped in sea ice, a second group of scientists will conduct complementary research from a network of field stations around the Arctic, including Canada, said Warwick Vincent, a polar scientist and Canada Research Chair at Université Laval in Quebec City.

An Inuit Inukshuk overlooks the sea ice at Kuujjuarapik on the shores of Hudson Bay in Nunavik, Canada. It symbolizes the central objective of T-MOSAiC to provide an improved understanding of how changes in Arctic seas influence the surrounding lands, ecosystems and people. (João Canário/University of Lisbon)

This second Arctic science project dubbed T-MOSAiC: Terrestrial Multidisciplinary distributed Observatories for the Study of Arctic Connections will try to understand what are the consequences of the rapidly diminishing Arctic sea ice cover for the surrounding lands and communities, said Vincent, who is a member and former director of the Centre for Northern Studies (CEN).

The Canadian research centre is the co-lead with the University of Lisbon, Portugal, of T-MOSAiC.

“Both of those projects are very exciting,” Vincent said. “They are really ways of learning about how the Arctic is changing and the ways in which we can predict those changes in the future.”

Canada’s Arctic regions are undergoing rapid changes. (Courtesy of Warwick Vincent)

Like MOSAiC, T-MOSAiC involves scientists from more than a dozen countries working under the auspices of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), reflecting the urgent need for us to all work together among nations to confront the global crisis of rapid climate change, Vincent said.

“Increasingly we realize that those lands around the Arctic are intimately connected to what is happening in the ocean,” Vincent said. “And of course for the people who live there, their culture, their way of lives have really have been closely linked to the food web of the Arctic Ocean to the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean for all sorts of reasons, including just the transport along the coast.”

(Click to listen to the full interview with Warwick Vincent)

As a biologist who’s been working on Canada’s northernmost tip on Ward Hunt Island since 1998 Vincent has witnessed many of these changes first hand.

“The changes have just been extraordinary in front of our eyes,” Vincent said. “Ice shelves, for example, very thick ice, some of the thickest ice floating on the Arctic Ocean has collapsed in front of us especially over the last decade-and-a-half or so.”

Ice that is up 100 metres thick has suddenly caved and disappeared, Vincent said.

“When I started in 1990s, some of the lakes were covered up to four metres or more of ice,” he said. “Over the last five years or so, we have seen a collapse of that ice and now even open water conditions during the summer months. Unprecedented conditions at least for millennia and maybe even longer.”

Scientists are increasingly seeing extreme events, Vincent said.

“This is of great concern for us,” he said. “What used to be considered very unusual circumstances are now becoming the norm at this far northern region of Canada and the circumpolar North.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Glacier-fed rivers in Arctic Canada sucking carbon dioxide out of the air: study, CBC News

Finland: Climate change spurs growth of exotic fruit in Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenland ice cores reveal historic climate clues, says study, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Climate change is about to divide Norway’s largest Arctic island, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Retreating ice reveals new land in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Heat stress that caused Alaska salmon deaths a sign of things to come, scientist warns, CBC News

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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