The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is quickly disappearing from coastal areas as we are entering the summer melt season. This year I follow this seasonal event with nervous anticipation, because in October and November we will be out at sea working north of northern Alaska. We plan to deploy a large number of ocean sensors to investigate how sound propagates from the deep Arctic Ocean on to the shallow Chukchi Sea. This figure shows our study area with the ice cover as it was reported yesterday from space:
Ice concentration for June 14, 2016 from SSM/I imagery. Insert show study area to the north of Alaska and planned mooring locations (red box).
Zooming in a little further, I show the coast of Alaska along with 100 and 1000 meter contour of bottom depth over a color map of ice concentrations:
Ice concentrations from SSM/I to the north of norther Alaska with planned mooring locations across the sloping bottom. The 100 and 1000 meter contours are shown in gray with blue and red symbols representing locations of ocean and acoustic sensors, respectively.
My responsibilities in this US Navy-funded project are the seven densely packed blue triangles. They indicate locations where I hope to measure continuously for a year ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure from which to construct sections of speed of sound and how it varies in time and space. I will also measure ice draft as well ice and ocean currents from which to estimate the roughness of the sea ice over time. Sea ice and ocean properties both impact sound propagation from deep to shallow water and vice versa.
A first question: What will the ice be like when we get there? This is the question that has the 40 or so people all working on this project anxiously preparing for the worst, but how can we expect what challenges are to come our way?
Doing my homework, I downloaded from the National Snow and Ice Data Center all gridded maps of ice concentrations that microwave satellites measured almost daily since 1978. Then I crunch the numbers on my laptop with a set of kitchen-sink Unix tools and code snippets such as
set ftp = 'ftp://sidads.colorado.edu'
set dir = 'pub/DATASETS/nsidc0081_nrt_nasateam_seaice/north'
wget -r -nd -l1 --no-check-certificate $ftp/$dir/$year/$file
along with fancy and free Fortran and General Mapping Tools to make the maps shown above. With these tools and data I can then calculate how much sea ice covers any area at any time. The result for custom-made mooring area at almost daily resolution gives a quick visual that I use to prepare for our fall 2016 expedition. The dotted lines in the top panel indicate the dates we are in the area.
Time series of daily ice concentration in the study area for different decades from January-1 through Dec.-31 for each year from 1980 through 2015. Panels are sorted by decade. The red curve is for 2015 and is shown for comparison in all panels.
The story here is well-known to anyone interested in Arctic sea ice and climate change, but here it applies to a tiny spec of ocean between the 100 and 1000 meter isobath where we plan to deployed ocean sensors for a year in the fall of 2016. For the two decades of the last century, the ice cover looks like a crap shoot with 80% ice cover possible any month of the year and ice-free conditions unlikely but possible here or there for a week or two at most. The situation changed dramatically since about 2000. During the last six years our study area has always been free of ice from late August to early October, however, our 2016 expedition is during the transition from ice-free October to generally ice-covered early November, but, I feel, our saving grace is that the sea ice will be thin and mobile. I thus feel that we probably can work comfortable on account of ice for the entire period, but the winds and waves will blow us away …
Weather will be most uncomfortable, because fall is the Pacific storm season. And with little or only thin ice, there will be lots and lots of waves with the ship pitching and rolling and seeking shelter that will challenge us from getting all the work done even with 7 days for bad weather built into our schedule.
I worked in this area on larger ships in 1993, 2003, and in 2004. Here is a photo that Chris Linder of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took during a massive storm in the general vicinity in October of 2004. The storm halted all outside work on the 420 feet long USCGC Healy heading into the waves for 42 long and miserable hours:
Icebreaker taking on waves on the bow during a fall storm in the Beaufort Sea in October 2004. [Photo Credit: Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]
Oh, I now also recall that during this four-week expedition
we never saw land or the sun. It was always a drizzly gray ocean on a gray horizon. The Arctic Ocean in the fall is an often cruel and inhospitable place with driving freezing rain and fog.