Researching on the sea ice

Researching on the sea ice

April 20, 2018

Many people have wondered who they are and what they are up to, these people who regularly wander across the ice wearing a wetsuit and pulling a small rubber boat.

They are researchers from the research institute Norut who have put out buoys to measure what is happening under the ice in Beisfjord, close to Narvik. Furthermore, they have similar projects underway in other places too, including Lavangen and Gratangen in Troms county.

Vulnerable Arctic

“At the risk of being too academic, we can say we are researching the microscopic interaction between sea ice and oil for detection and environmental risk management of sustainable operations,” says American Research Scientist Megan O'Sadnick.

“When we see trends towards increasingly more activity in Arctic regions, it’s necessary to be proactive. We must acknowledge that the decline of the sea ice in the Arctic will have a major impact on the global climate, while also resulting in increased commercial activity such as shipping, fisheries, tourism and petroleum activities,” says O'Sadnick.

“Knowledge is a necessity for risk assessment and contingency planning of oil spills in ice-covered waters. The oil may be discharged from ships or directly from extraction,” she continues.

“We know how to manage oil spill in warm areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, but we don’t know enough about what to do in the extremely vulnerable High North,” explains Megan.

Beisfjord is perfect

The investigations O'Sadnick and her colleagues at Norut Narvik are performing form part of the PhD thesis the ice nerd is working on.

“Beisfjord is the perfect outdoor minilab,” says the researcher from the inland state Colorado, who has Irish and Polish roots.

“The fjord is only 15 minutes from the office, it offers the variables I’m looking for and is easily accessible. It’s completely perfect,” says O'Sadnick.

“By the way, it will be exciting to see how the ice behaves when, or if, spring comes. Even though the water is relatively shallow, the ice thickness is now 50 cm (!). Will the ice just melt or will it break up?” asks the authority on ice rhetorically.

Important to be prepared

“At the head of the fjord, we can observe what happens to the ice when freshwater from the rivers mixes with the seawater,” she continues. “We measure the temperature and thickness of the ice and take ice cores, so we can study the ice further back in the laboratory. This enables us to see how wind, sunlight, snow, rain and aerosols affect the ice.”

“We know that sea ice is extremely porous and will suck up oil just like a sponge. Furthermore, we know that ice in rivers and lakes has a completely different density and is almost impermeable. In other words, we have reliable knowledge of the processes in the open sea. However, we know less about the ice that forms when freshwater mixes with saltwater, and that’s what I want to find out more about,” elaborates Megan.

“If we know more about how this type of ice and oil interact, we can enhance the contingency plans and be better prepared in case something happens.”

Need help

“Ice is extremely fascinating,” enthuses Megan, who has a master's degree in the field of ice from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. However, she is a little apologetic about her lack of Norwegian, even though she had a brief stint as research assistant at the Polar Institute in Tromsø.

“But I'll be here at least until 2021 so learning Norwegian is naturally something I will do, not least so I can talk with locals who have knowledge of what the ice conditions were like earlier. We have data back to the turn of millennium, but unfortunately not from prior to that,” she says.

“I would like to talk with anyone who has photos from the ‘old days’ or can provide information verbally that may be useful in our research,” says Megan. “Please contact me at Norut. It would be outstanding if anyone could contribute with increased local knowledge,” concludes the PhD student.

This article written by journalist Jan Westby was published in the newspaper Fremover on 11 April18. It is republished here with the permission of the newspaper.

This project is part of CIRFA - Centre for Integrated Remote Sensing and Forecasting for Arctic Operations.