Lance is back on thin ice – but this time it’s a good thing


OK, here’s more fun for climate change skeptics who say scientists can’t be consistent in their conclusions: In the past, thin ice was a menace to their ship, their equipment and their very lives. Now it’s awesome stuff.

Researchers aboard the Lance research ship during its fourth month of a planned six-month expedition in the sea ice north of Spitsbergen are getting a rare chance to study a certain type of thin-ice surface, according to Sebastian Gerland, the expedition’s cruise leader, in a post for the project’s official blog. Being able to compare the behavior of that ice to thicker ice is part of the new data participants are trying to collect as they study the lifecycle of the sea ice “from cradle to grave.”

“When the Lance came to the ice floe that she is still moored to, about three weeks ago, the main workplace for the scientists was a first-year sea ice floe off the starboard side of the ship,” he wrote.  “Now an earlier open lead off the port side is covered by thin sea ice, making it an excellent additional working site and a scientific hotspot.”

Bein able to study such thin sea ice is rare because leads don’t  represent the largest fraction of the Arctic sea ice cover area, Gerland wrote.

“Compared to thicker sea ice with a larger snow cover, they allow for much larger energy fluxes and increased atmosphere-ocean exchange,” he noted. “Lead ice is thin to begin with, and has little or no snow covering it. Consequently, the amount of solar radiation that penetrates this type of ice is substantially larger, compared to first-year ice or older. Because of this, some of the ecosystem-related processes typical for spring time starts here first.”

The ice the researchers are working on is about 15 centimeters thick. While they study the behavior and makeup of the ice, a remotely operate vehicle is measuring the ice’s thickness, salinity, solar reflective properties and other qualities beneath the surface.

Thin ice is of increasing interest and concern to polar researchers because old “multi-year” ice is rapidly being replace by thin “single-year” ice due to climate change. The different reflective properties of the thin ice will likely mean an acceleration of warming in the oceans and its resulting impacts on marine ecosystems.

The Lance, which began its six-month mission in January, shifts of about 25 international scientists conducting research for what is described as one of most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the Norwegian Polar Institute. The ship was supposed to spend three months frozen in the ice above 80 degrees latitude north, return briefly to Longyearbyen and then spend another three months frozen in spring ice further to the north, but has been forced to relocate a couple of times after being pushed out into open water.

The unplanned drifting toward the ice edge also forced the researchers to scramble to salvage gear deployed around the vessel that was in danger of being lost as the ice broke up.