Arctic researchers just starting out face an intriguing but unsettling reality: much of the sea ice that's covered the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years may rapidly melt away over their careers. In fact, some projections say the region may see its first ice-free summer in modern history by 2040.
A group of grad students got to see this reality in person on a recent expedition that set off in September from Tromsø, Norway. It took five days of traveling through open water to get to the sea ice in the middle of the ocean, longer than it likely would have taken decades ago.
It's night when the ship finally gets there. After being alerted by a member of the expedition who'd seen a scrap of ice floating by, many stand out on deck, peering into the darkness for a glimmer of white. PhD student Mauro Hermann sees it first.
"Oh! There's ice!" he shouts, pointing towards the dark water. And indeed, a small shape comes bobbing into view.
"It looks like white and it stays there, so it's not a wave," he says, distinguishing it from the small whitecaps on the open ocean.
This ship — the research vessel Akademik Fedorov — is headed north to help with a massive scientific experiment to study the changing Arctic. It's called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC.
20 graduate students are along for the experience as part of a 5-week "school," where they listen to lectures from the scientists participating in the expedition, and help with some of the work. Many have never seen Arctic sea ice before.
"I thought I might cry actually when I first saw sea ice," says Robbie Mallett, who studies sea ice at the University College London using satellites. "But I don't think I am going to cry, I think I'm just excited."
He's standing out on deck later the same night as we arrive at the ice's edge. By now, bigger and bigger pieces of ice are appearing around the ship.
"It's such a precious resource," he says. "It's not going to go away in the winter for awhile, but it's certainly going to change... We're privileged to be here and see it, I suppose."
You might imagine Arctic sea ice as a flat white cap on the ocean, sort of like snow-covered ice on a lake. Sometimes it does look like that.
But as the days pass, the ship moves through many different ice landscapes, each with its own colors, textures, and behaviors.
"There are areas that are just a tiny little skin on the surface of the ocean which is kind of moving and shimmering as the water moves up and down," says Lisa Craw, a PhD student from the University of Tasmania.
There are also "flowers of frost that grow out of this young ice, giving these little white sparks on a gray background," says Sam Cornish, who's getting his PhD at the University of Oxford.
"There's caves, there's little hills, ridges," says Marylou Athanase, another PhD student from Sorbonne University, "it's really impressive and it really, really looked like the moon."
Not all of these students are sea ice researchers. Cornish, for example, studies the Arctic ocean. But he recognizes the ice as a poignant symbol of how our world is changing.
"The Arctic sea ice is like the canary in the mine," he says. "It's the first thing that's really giving us this very bleak signal of climate change which is not constrained to the Arctic."
Most of these students are in their 20s. That means that in the 2040s, they could find themselves on a ship like this one, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at the end of summer, without any ice in sight.
"To be honest, it's just hard to imagine," says Mallett, currently 26, who hopes to be doing field work related to Arctic sea ice then. "A huge space in the middle of the Arctic Ocean that is not covered in ice... I can't visualize it."
Cornish says that studying the dramatic shifts happening on earth due to climate change are fascinating to him from a scientific point of view. "But then it's also really scary," he says, "And it's sad."
Lisa Craw typically studies Antarctic ice shelves at the opposite pole, where the ice is also melting but is much thicker, on the scale of thousands of feet. She says that seeing the thinner ice of the Arctic makes her feel more urgency about what she does.
"Because it just feels like what we have here is not permanent," she says. "And I guess I've never really felt that so viscerally before."
Some of the other young scientists echo that thought. Athanase, who studies the ocean under the sea ice, says she feels even more motivated now to keep studying the Arctic. For her, the changes here have gone from being abstract, to "very, very real."
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