Arctic expedition reaches the ice

September 22, 2009

    U.S. and Russian scientists exploring the Arctic ocean finally reached ice on Monday, about 435 miles (700 km) northwest of Barrow, Alaska.

    On a year when the Arctic sea ice has receded in the summer to its third-smallest on record, researchers on the RUSALCA expedition got the opportunity to study the water, sea life and the ocean floor at a location where there is rarely open water.

    The mission’s science chief, Terry Whitledge, said it he did not expect explore such a northerly location without an icebreaker. 

    The team took core samples from the seabed, more than 600 metres (1,968 feet) down from the surface.

    “We think that is our biggest scientific gain,” Whitledge, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said by satellite phone from the bridge of the research vessel Professor Khromov.

    The scientists are on a six-week expedition through the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea, coordinated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Russian Academy of Sciences, to gauge the impact of climate change on the region.

    The weather has been mostly moderate for the time of year, but one recent Russian cold front made work on the ship tough by icing up the deck and freezing up some gear used to lower equipment into the ocean, Whitledge said.

    Microbiologist Alexander Savvichev said he has been surprised by the lack of methane concentrations in sediment where pockmarks, or deep depressions on the sea floor, had been identified. Such features can be caused by gas seeps, so the formation of these is a mystery.

    “The success is that we have collected enough samples for laboratory analysis, and we are taking them home. Experiments will show exactly what the situation is,” he said.

    The expedition runs to the end of September.

    (Photo: The Professor Khromov at its northernmost location in the Arctic Ocean, 77 27.5 N, 166 25.6 W, on Monday, Sept 21, 2009. Photo courtesy of RAS-NOAA)

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