A meeting with “the Elvis of sea ice science”

Posted by jossg — 12 September 2011 at 9:08am - Comments
Two crew members get their first sight of sea ice from the bow of the Arctic Sun
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace / Nick Cobbing
Two crew members get their first sight of sea ice from the bow of the Arctic Sunrise, in waters off Arctic Svalbard

A few months ago I took the train down from London to Cambridge with my colleague Frida Bengtsson, who is leading this expedition, so that we could meet up with Professor Peter Wadhams. As head of the University’s ‘Polar Ocean Physics Group’, it’s fair to say Peter knows a thing or two about Arctic sea ice. Friends at Greenpeace like to call him ‘the Elvis of sea ice science.’

In his modern office, which looks directly across into Professor Steven Hawking’s studio, we were lucky enough to spend a few hours getting our own private seminar on the changes occurring in the Arctic.

For example, he told us he expected there was more than a fifty per cent chance that this year we would witness a world record shrinking of the summer sea ice, driven by the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions. He added that his counterparts at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) – the main institute in America for studying Arctic sea ice – expected that by 2030, the summer sea ice could have disappeared completely. He predicted it would occur even sooner, perhaps in the next decade, suggesting too that the North Pole itself could be open water even sooner than that – maybe even next year!

To hear such a world authority, somebody who has studied the Arctic ice for the past forty years, make this assertion seemed quite profound. Shortly afterwards, he took us down the corridor to introduce us to his student and colleague Nick Toberg. Back in London, and a few emails later, Nick was confirmed to join our trip with another Cambridge sea ice expert, Till Wagner, and on September 1st they both set sail with us from Longyearbyen on Svalbard to go up to the pack ice.

At around 81 degrees north, the ship is being carefully navigated to suitably strong ice floes where the scientists can conduct three weeks of field research into the thickness and volume of the sea ice. Using drills, core-ing, aerial imagery, snow depth measurements and GPS readings, they are establishing the properties of the sea ice at ten different sites.

Excitingly, they’re also pioneering a new approach to measuring the thickness of the ice by working with Will Trossell and Matthew Shaw - two experts on laser scanning who have joined us from University College London. Laser scanners are more conventionally used in architecture, but Till explained why it’s a groundbreaking development for their research:

“Up until now we had to measure the sea ice with a tape and a ruler going point by point. Now we scan the sea ice floes at a high resolution and take an exact digital copy of the Arctic ice home with us to the lab.”

Back in England, the data Nick and Till have collected here should hopefully make a modest contribution to the world’s understanding of what is happening to this fragile region where 28,000 square miles of ice is disappearing every year – and what that means for the stability of the global climate. Just as Miners used to have canaries to warn of rising concentrations of noxious gases, climate researchers have Arctic sea ice.

With information from satellites, complex computer models and dedicated field campaigns like this one, we will all be better able to comprehend what our fossil fuel addiction means we’re losing before it becomes too late.

Joss Garman is communications officer aboard the Arctic Sunrise, which is currently in the Arctic. You can follow all updates from the ship here.

Follow Greenpeace UK