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Science & Environment

Scientists Will Deliberately Encase Their Ship In Arctic Sea Ice

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ships sailing through the Arctic Ocean face a risk - it's the risk that the ship will be trapped in the ice that spreads across the ocean each winter. In centuries, past Arctic explorers were sometimes stuck for an entire winter and some never broke free. Now comes word of scientists who plan to steer a ship into the Arctic and trap it in the ice on purpose. That will put them in position to study how and why the Arctic is warming.

Reporter Ravenna Koenig is at the starting point in Tromso, Norway.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Around 200 people are cycling through the German icebreaker Polarstern, moving massive amounts of equipment onboard, unpacking instruments and starting to install and test them.

(DRILL WHIRRING)

KOENIG: From the top deck, there's an excellent view of all the activity. A row of snowmobiles sits on the concrete down below ready for loading. And a massive orange crane is lifting shipping containers - some that will even be used as lab space - and placing them on the boat. One of the people making these preparations is Matthew Shupe, a scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MATTHEW SHUPE: Excited and nervous, I am both of those things.

KOENIG: Shupe is a co-coordinator for this endeavor known as the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate - or MOSAiC. The project will study the ocean, the atmosphere and the sea ice. And they'll be digging into all kinds of questions about the physics, the biology and the chemistry of those systems.

SHUPE: The science is extremely diverse. It's all focused on the sea ice, though. The sea ice is kind of the centerpiece of it all.

KOENIG: As the Arctic has warmed over the past few decades, the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has gotten thinner and now covers a lot less area. The last time that researchers took such a comprehensive look at the Arctic Ocean system was over two decades ago. Back then, the Arctic was a totally different landscape. And the picture they captured is rapidly becoming outdated.

SHUPE: As we have a thinner ice pack, that changes the way that energy transfers through the ice. It changes how the ice breaks up, how the ice moves around. So there's so many different kind of new behaviors of the ice because it's taking on a new character that we really need to study.

KOENIG: The sea ice, the atmosphere and the ocean are linked. So changes in the ice could mean a cascade of changes in everything from how clouds are formed to how much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the ocean, to how organisms that depend on the ice are functioning.

Scientists need to observe how all these things interact in the new Arctic so they can better reflect them in climate models. That will lead to a better understanding of things like how fast the Arctic sea ice could melt and the effect a warming Arctic could have on global temperature. Here's the catch. What these scientists are about to attempt, it's not a done deal that they'll be able to pull it off.

MARKUS REX: I think we'll find a nice situation, but it's not clear yet. And I'm nervous about it, of course

KOENIG: That's Markus Rex, a scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute and the leader of the MOSAiC mission. To study how the sea ice system evolves over an entire calendar year, the ship will need to cozy up to one big ice floe and freeze in next to it over the winter. After that, they'll have to go where the ice takes them.

REX: The selection of the starting point is really the main parameter that determines how the expedition will go because that's the only degree of freedom we have.

KOENIG: It's possible that the ice they pick could melt out too early. Or it could wind up taking them somewhere they don't want to go, like too close to Russia - where they'd have to stop taking measurements - or a spot called the Beaufort Gyre.

REX: That's a large gyre of ice where the ice just circles around for many years north of Greenland and North of Canada. We don't want to get stuck in that.

KOENIG: They have studied over a decade of satellite data to help them. But they won't really know what they'll find until they get out there. The Polarstern is expected to reach the edge of the sea ice within a few weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESS MEETS WEST'S "FOG HORNS ON THE BALTIC")

KOENIG: For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in Tromso, Norway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.