Laboratory takes part in largest Arctic expedition in history

Project provides unprecedented climate change data for national security decisions

By David Moore | April 6, 2021

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Jessie Creamean collects sea water and marine organisms that live beneath the ice. The organisms can end up in the atmosphere, playing a key role in regulating the climate.

With the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) mobile observation facility made up of state-of-the-art instruments, Chu travels to the ends of the Earth collecting climate data to help scientists and policy makers understand how climate change will affect national security. In September 2019, Chu and ARM instrument expert Jessie Creamean loaded their high-tech instruments aboard an icebreaker, the Polarstern, and headed for the Arctic. They were two of the 300 researchers from 20 countries participating in the first year‑long research expedition in the Arctic—one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

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The Polarstern. “It’s beautiful—the Arctic—but it’s a really challenging environment where you are constantly fighting the elements,” Chu says. Something as simple as tightening a nut on an instrument can take three times as long in the Arctic because of the cumbersome personal protective equipment and the need to constantly watch for lurking polar bears.

“Once, my glasses fogged up when I was on bear guard,” Creamean says, “and because it gets so cold in the Arctic, my glasses just shattered into pieces!” Curious bears and plunging temperatures are some of the reasons a dearth of data from the northernmost point on Earth still exists. However, that data holds the key to many national security issues. For one, the Arctic is considered the bellwether for climate trends in North America. Retrieving Arctic data, such as sea ice volume and ice cracks, will help climate scientists create better climate models that can predict weather and natural disasters, which down our power grids, erode our shores, and cost our nation billions of dollars in repairs.

Right now, there isn’t enough data to conclusively say that climate change causes an increase in extreme weather events. Scientists need to know more: how does the warming climate impact environmental processes, and how do those processes feed back on each other to create more change? The Arctic has changed more rapidly in the past few years, and scientists don’t know how that will impact the world. However, they do know that as more Arctic ice melts, new routes for shipping and retrieval of natural resources will open up, leading to another national security issue. Who will be in charge of the Arctic? Who will have right-of-way?

“It’s kind of a free-for-all at the moment,” Chu says, “and expanding Arctic Ocean sovereign claims complicate the international response to ice and ocean changes.” The Arctic data that Chu and Creamean helped gather will go a long way toward aiding decision makers in how to go about accessing and regulating those Arctic resources: fishing, oil, and gas, for example. “It may be a harsh environment, but it’s also a really delicate ecosystem,” Creamean says. “Altering it in any way can really impact our nation, and we still can’t predict exactly how.”

Although the Polarstern finished its Arctic mission on October 12, 2020, the full data set won’t be ready until 2023. This gives researchers time to clean and submit their data to the public repository. The goal as a data hunter-gatherer is to bring back the highest-quality data possible, and that isn’t something that should be rushed. “People will be analyzing and publishing conclusions based on this data set for years and years,” Creamean says. “It’s incredibly valuable, and the first of its kind.”

This article first appeared in the Laboratory’s National Security Science magazine