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Dispatch 4: Sponge Bobber Overboard and Semi-science Fiction

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September 9th Photos
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David Jones and Andrey Proshutinsky

September 9, 2017

Weather: 100% cloud cover, 5 knot winds, calm seas
Temperature: -4 C
Relative humidity: 88%
Location: Beaufort Sea, 72 21 N; 134 01 W


Things are starting to fall into a routine. There are still many pieces of equipment to set up but the CTD casts are happening routinely and the required onboard sample processing and analysis are well underway. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. Along with those three measurements being made there are 24 bottles that can be opened and closed remotely (Niskin Bottles) so that water samples can be taken at numerous depths throughout the cast.

Seita Hoshino from the Kitami Institute of Technology, Hokkaido, Japan is a graduate student and is studying sea ice thickness. I helped him get a couple of his cameras mounted and focused over the last couple of days so that he could start making measurements now that we are cruising (and crushing) sea ice. I woke up last night wondering why the ship was no longer rocking back and forth, back and forth. I was also wondering WHY the ship was running into things hard enough to rattle the entire vessel. Then I thought, oh yeah I am on an icebreaker.... it must be breaking ice. It is because of the ice that there are no longer any waves.

Yesterday evening was the last of the releases of the Sponge Bobber drifters which are used to measure surface current. They are pretty unique devices in that they buoy a small GPS transmitter that will transmit its location until the battery wears out. The materials readily breakdown in the seawater except for the small plastic components.

Crew Member Focus

Glenn Keeping is one of the Quartermasters on the CCGS Louis St. Laurent. His home is Ramea, Newfoundland. Ramea is a small island off of the coast of Newfoundland proper. Glenn is a 30 year veteran mariner having mostly worked on various cruise ships. His longest stint at sea was 4 months. This is his first year as a member of the Canadian Coast Guard but he says he took the job because it offered better employment. He said he was tired of getting routinely laid off by the cruise ship companies. He says the most important aspect of his job is being on lookout keeping watch. During his deployment he will work 12 hours on and 12 hours off.... for 28 days...straight. Impressive!

Saturday Semi-science Fiction stories

While the major goal of our work is to understand causes and consequences of climate change and find methods and approaches to predict future changes, there have been numerous attempts to influence Arctic climate directly by ambitious engineering projects proposed by both scientific communities and simply enthusiasts from the general public. During this expedition we will discuss some of these projects and their potential impacts to illustrate both the power and the limitations of our theories and plans to influence and improve natural processes. To do this we use several recent publications and add our own comments based on our experience gained in this project.

From the beginning of the last century many scientists and engineers have been thinking about improving of Arctic climate conditions assuming that smart engineering solutions in combination with new technologies can be used to change the environment for the better. Thinking big is always a great temptation. This was especially great when science seemed omniscient and omnipotent, capable, with one stroke, to solve any global problems, from social injustice to climate change. "The multi-century dream of mankind is to create favorable conditions for its existence by influencing the processes of climate formation," wrote the Soviet scientist Nikolai Yasamanov. However, we were very fortunate that this dream remained a dream, and the popular ideas in the early 1960s to destroy the ice cover of the Arctic were never realized.

Northern river reversal

The project to turn Siberian rivers southward to improve the agriculture of the southern water-hungry regions of Russia was proposed in the 1830s by Alexander Shrenk impressed by the big engineering projects building the Suez and Panama canals at this time. Interestingly is that the real research and planning work on the project started only in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and was carried out on a large scale in the 1960s through the early 1980s. Some 120 institutes and agencies participated in the impact study coordinated by the Russian Academy of Sciences; a dozen conferences were held on the matter. The promoters of the project claimed that extra food production due to the availability of Siberian water for irrigation in Central Asia could provide food for some 200 million people.

In the 1980s, at least 12 of the Arctic Ocean-bound rivers were proposed to be redirected to the south annually returning 37.8 billion extra cubic meters of water to the European side of Russia and 60 billion cubic meters in Siberia. At that time, it was estimated that an additional freeze-up would occur over artificial canals and reservoirs (delaying the spring thaw) and cut the brief northern growing season by two weeks. The adverse effect of climatic cooling was greatly feared and contributed much to the opposition at that time, and the scheme was not taken up. Severe problems were feared from the thick ice expected to remain well past winter in the proposed reservoirs. It was also feared that the prolonged winter weather would cause an increase in spring winds and reduce vital rains. More disturbing, some scientists cautioned that if the Arctic Ocean was not replenished by fresh water, it would get saltier and its freezing point would drop, and the sea ice would begin to melt, possibly starting a global warming trend. Other scientists feared that the opposite might occur: as the flow of warmer fresh water would be reduced, the polar ice might expand. A British climatologist, Michael Kelly, warned of other consequences: changes in polar winds and currents might reduce rainfall in the regions benefiting from the river re-direction. The controversial project was abandoned in 1986, primarily for environmental reasons, without much actual construction work ever done.

But recently, the ideas to reverse Siberian rivers were reintroduced by former Soviet Union republics Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The major idea now additional to irrigation is to save the Aral Sea from drying out and to protect huge agricultural areas around it from salinification.

Many of Arctic Ocean oceanographers and climatologists were involved in these discussions. It was found that the reversal of Siberian rivers should influence the strength of the Arctic Ocean upper layer stratification (reducing it). The surface fresh water layer in the Arctic Ocean protects the sea ice from melting. The heat comes to the ice bottom from below: from the warm Pacific and Atlantic water layers which heat content is enough to melt all Arctic sea ice. Thus, it was shown that the reduction of fresh water in the upper ocean layers due to the reversal of Siberian rivers will result in a so called halocline catastrophe, sea ice melt and climate warming.

In the 1970s, when climate was cold and severe this was considered as a positive effect due to increasing periods of Arctic navigation and warming up of the arctic environment. However, not much attention was paid to the many negative effects of this such as thawing of permafrost (and destruction of many roads, pipelines and buildings), release of greenhouse gases, and crucial impacts on Arctic ecosystems.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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