Temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as quickly as the global average. Globally, 2015 was the hottest year on record (reported by NOAA and NASA) and the month of January 2016 saw a new record low level for Arctic sea ice extent (reported by the NSIDC). Sea ice loss alters the solar radiation balance in the Arctic, baring dark ocean water that absorbs the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it away. Every fall the Arctic ocean’s heat is transferred back into the atmosphere– upsets in atmospheric trends can alter the jet stream and impact weather systems in North America.
Now through new advances in isotope science, we can sniff Arctic air to better quantify changes as they occur. Dr. Jeff Welker told Frontier Scientists: “When you evaporate water off of an ocean that’s covered in ice, its chemistry is very different compared to water that evaporates off an open body or a fractured body of water.” Welker, a Fulbright Distinguished US Arctic Chair and a professor of Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has been investigating the water isotope cycle in the Arctic and across all of N America for the past 20 years.
In new video How To Process An Isotope, enter the Environment and Natural Resources Institute Stable Isotope Lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Matt Rogers, research scientist at UAA, runs day-to-day operations in the Stable Isotope Lab founded by Welker as part of his original appointment at UAA and his NSF Major Research Instrumentation award that Welker received in 2008. Isotopes are forms of the same chemical element with different numbers of neutrons and slightly different atomic weights. Rogers introduces tools used to separate light isotopes from heavy isotopes in the lab. These machines analyze samples ranging from rainwater to polar bear hair! Revisit video Polar Bear Hair Secrets.
In Arctic Cyclone Discovered by Isotope Experiment, step out of the lab and head to Toolik Field Station in the remote foothills of the Brooks Range. There, new laser-based technology allows Welker and his team to collect water vapor samples continuously one-time per second, measuring isotopic ratios as well as levels of greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide and methane. “What we discovered is: we’re actually able to monitor arctic sea ice conditions 100 miles south of the actual arctic coast, and do this in real-time,” Welker said.
Dr. Eric Klein, research scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, stated “We actually were able to analyze and measure the passage of an arctic cyclone.” Welker explained “The cyclone built and developed itself over in Eurasia and it spun and came across northern Alaska and it fractured the ice across that area. In doing so it also brought wind down into the foothills of Alaska where we were able to capture this event in real time because the isotope properties had changed.”
“This insight was especially important in our understanding of the Arctic in the past,” Klein said. Klein was able to compare the rapid changes he observed with the cyclone to rapid changes in water isotopes in the Greenland ice core. Klein discovered that the rapid shifts in climate recorded in the ice matched in part his observations with the major shifts caused by the change from ice-covered to partially ice-free conditions during the cyclone. This coherence in the modern and the ancient climate record allows Klein and Welker to argue that the rapid shifts in the Greenland ice sheet isotopes 10,000 years ago reflect major changes in the sea ice extent around Greenland.
Welker and Klein used the new technology to sample air just ahead of the bow of icebreaker USCGC Healy; see video Sniffing the Arctic. “No one’s done this before,” Welker said. During a summer expedition they rounded Alaska, departing Kodiak and traversing Unimak Pass north into the Bering Sea, into the Chukchi Sea and all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Basin. “During that time we’re continuously measuring and smelling and detecting the fine details of the chemistry of that air, both in terms of water vapor and CO2,” Welker said. The technology is being used to get a heightened awareness of the environment. “We’ll be able to eventually create a graph and an algorithm and a model that will allow us to say something about the conditions of sea ice by smelling and detecting what the water vapor isotope characteristics are, in real time, on the deck,” helping ships be more aware of the potentially hazardous environment they’re transiting through and helping fill in gaps in scientific knowledge about the surface of sea ice.
Frontier Scientists 2016
Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond
(Sniffing The Arctic isotope science videos released)