This summer’s Arctic expedition will be my 7th research cruise and throughout my career as an oceanographer I have worked hard to earn my “sea legs.” During my first research cruise I shamelessly tossed my cookies into the North Atlantic Ocean, but year by year my body learned to adjust to life at sea and I now revel in big crashing waves that sweep the deck with torrents of water. As much as I love the thrill of riding roller coaster waves on a research vessel, it adds an extra challenge to deck operations and lab work; calm seas give way to calm science.
I have been told that cruising on an ice-breaker feels like an earthquake, a slow crawl through the ice protected from waves but bumpy to say the least. This year with a record-low ice minimum we may encounter more open-water than anticipated during the onset of our journey in the Chukchi Sea. Wave height is determined by wind speed and duration, and fetch, or the distance of open water where wind blows in a single direction. Less ice in the Arctic Ocean increases fetch creating bigger waves. In 2012 researchers measured a 25 ft wave in the Beaufort Sea, not far from our cruise track.
Ice in the Arctic Ocean is disappearing faster than climate models predicted and scientists have long puzzled over the missing link. Researchers from the Marginal Ice Zone Program are now investigating wave action as source of ice-loss. A special fleet of ocean robots has been deployed in the Arctic Ocean to study the impact of wave energy. These robots glide through surface water and under ice collecting data that is later transmitted to scientist via satellite. Researchers are still analyzing the impact of waves on Arctic sea ice – ice could simply scatter wave energy having little influence, or absorb wave energy moving and breaking apart the ice. If wave energy does break apart ice, this positive feedback loop (more open water → bigger waves → less ice) could be the missing link for Arctic sea-ice disappearance.