North Pole Environmental Observatory field work underway

Scientists land at Camp Barneo, a moving camp on the ice near the North Pole. Led by Dr. Jamie Morison, the team is conducting annual fieldwork for the NSF-supported North Pole Environmental Observatory project. All photos: Tom Quinn On the sea ice floating over (or near) Earth’s geographical North Pole, a team of scientists led by Jamie Morison (U Washington) is conducting annual springtime sampling activities for the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO). For more than a decade, this northern field work takes place each April with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The collected information helps track changes in Arctic Ocean circulation and freshwater distribution. It contributes to a better understanding about the region, information that is used by many studying global weather and ocean circulation patterns, sea-ice dynamics, and the northern ocean.

Camp Barneo, Russia.

Specifically, the data collected and synthesized through NPEO contributes to an interagency effort known as SEARCH, which seeks to understand how climate change is affecting Arctic terrestrial, oceanic, atmospheric, and human systems, including:

  • Increased air temperatures over most of the Arctic;
  • Changing ocean circulation and rising coastal sea level;
  • Reduced sea ice cover;
  • Thawing permafrost.

The fieldwork requires flying out to and landing on the sea ice near individual instruments. Upon landing, scientists send radio commands instructing the instrument to release data so they may retrieve atmospheric, weather, sea-ice and upper ocean water column information.

To say this is a complicated task is an understatement. There is no land at the North Pole—just sea-ice drifting at the whim of currents and storms.

Each year, the Russians build a camp called Barneo on a swath of sea ice near the pole, and the research teams stage instrument deployments and data recovery missions from there. While Barneo is the forward logistics hub, NSF-supported people and gear queue at Longyearbyen on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago—a scenic island chain about 700 miles from the pole—waiting for their turn to advance to the Russian camp Barneo.

PFS project manager Tom Quinn is stationed in Longyearbyen, one of the primary hubs on Svalbard, to assist the researchers as they prepare to fly to and from Barneo.

Conducting field work at the North Pole requires a lot of cargo.

Last week, Quinn wrote of Barneo: “The Barneo site has been selected and the runway is accepting flights. Atypically they found an incredibly smooth iceflow that only required minimal snow removal. The site is currently moving to the west about 3 miles per day.”

In other words, it’s a moving target. Between an ambitious plan to accomplish a lot of  research in a small window of time, weather delays and unexpected developments at the ice camp itself, Quinn spends his days (and nights) planning contingencies, assisting researchers, and moving cargo and passengers to and from the airport.

Morison’s team is currently moving to and from the North Pole study sites via Camp Barneo. They are scheduled to begin hydrographic surveys on April 11 and plan to complete all operations before month’s end.

In 2013, projects working under the NPEO umbrella include these NSF-funded efforts:

To maximize the investment in sending people to Barneo, a small research team will deploy the buoys and instruments for the entire NPEO group.

During the remainder of the year, NPEO relies mostly on remote sensing—principally NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)— to monitor and study changes in the Arctic Ocean over a broad range of time scales.

Interested in what the scientists uncover? Check back in with us to track NPEO’s progress.  —Rachel Walker