The last hunt for the future

On a research vessel north of Svalbard, a scientific research team leads an expedition to collect crucial data to understand how ice sheet melt rates are tied to rapid sea level rise.

Words and photographs by Tim Lyons
Drone photographs by Chris Lyons
Wildlife photographs by Toby Matthews via Ocean Image Bank

“You should take your boots off; boots will tear that suit apart,” the captain says to me as I pull a thick red immersion suit up to my chest. Resembling a full-body wetsuit, only much thicker and more claustrophobic, the suit is designed to keep you alive long enough to be rescued in water temperatures below 40 degrees. Before the zipper made its way to my nose to seal me in fully, the captain says: “But don’t forget your boots; stick them in your suit (gesturing to tuck them in near my chest) before you zip it up if you were to survive long enough to wash onto a rocky outcropping you would be glad you had those.”

I think he saw the look of concern on my face and followed up with: “This entire exercise is only a precaution for an extremely unlikely event.” His attempt at being polite was only a further reminder of how remote Arctic waters can be. Outside of any shipping lanes or commercial flight paths, where we are headed remains one of the most remote corners of our planet. The research cruise I find myself on, however, is just as focused on the question of ‘when’ as it is with ‘where’.

Sitting between Greenland and Svalbard is a deep-water passage that connects the Arctic Ocean with the Northern Atlantic to the south. Today, this passage is best defined by the presence of a warm northward flowing current west of Spitsbergen (WSC) and the southward flowing East Greenland Current (EGC). The northward flowing current plays an important role in both regional and global climate change because of the heat, moisture, and salt it brings into the Arctic region. The crossing of these currents acts as a gate into the Arctic and because of this is a very strong forcing mechanism for climate change. In the present the Arctic continues to warm nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet. Known as Arctic amplification, a series of feedback loops compound the rate of warming. This affects the rest of northern hemisphere through a dysregulation of the Polar Jetstream, which can deliver extreme cold to the United States and Canada.

This trend has been linked to extreme weather events such as the Texas cold wave that caused the collapse of the state’s infrastructure and over 80 billion dollars in direct and indirect economic losses. A key piece to understanding how this deep-water oceanic gate is related to fluctuations in Arctic temperature sits below the seafloor in sediment drifts that have accumulated over millions of years. Renata Giulia Lucchi (National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics -OGS) and Kristen St. John (James Madison University) lead the expedition set on collecting the samples necessary to better solve this puzzle.

It’s 12:52, and the daily weather forecast hits my inbox. It indicates the possibility of rough seas as we make our way up the coast of Norway. I find myself reading this email in what appears to be a typical conference room, except upon closer inspection, everything is strapped in place. No wheels on the office chairs, no bookshelf without a bungee cord, and no coffee mugs left sitting without a sealable lid. The entire room appears to breathe in and out as we make our way over the large ocean swell, every now and then, with a large crash of the bow hitting a wave. It feels like gravity is indecisive, choosing to push down hard on you before changing its mind and letting off a little as you float back down into your seat, and from the looks of the email I just read, it is only going to get worse.

I make my way to the top deck to speak with Kristen St. John about the expedition’s goals while we are still in transit to our first sampling site. I find her taking notes at a large desk; behind her, a potted Ficus tree sits in a large window, silhouetted by the bright mid-day light and the blur of the Norwegian Sea as it whizzes by. We are about an hour away from crossing into the Arctic Circle. Kristen began her academic career on the other side of the deep-water channel where we are headed, along the southern coast of Greenland. During which a heavy storm cut the expedition short after a large wave came over the bow, knocking out windows and flooding the bridge. Despite the rough waters she started her career in, she has spent the majority of her career researching the Arctic either at sea or through samples collected in the region.

“Nobody is divorced from the world’s oceans,” Kristen explains. “Everyone interacts with the ocean in one way or another, whether at the beach, through a major food source, or far inland through drainage basins. What happens on a farm in Kansas or Nebraska has a major effect on ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. If the ocean is not healthy, the planet is not healthy; the ecosystem being unhealthy puts human health at risk.” Understanding ocean systems helps us better understand how our human systems can cooperate with the oceans in a way that doesn’t jeopardise the health of ecosystems. This is where scientists like Kristen and Renata step in. By looking into the ocean’s past, we can better understand how these systems have changed and been affected by land-based systems over time. This then gives us a roadmap to better understand the future ahead.

Nothing about the Arctic is easy or straightforward; rough seas, cold weather, and the threat of sea ice are only a handful of the difficulties. Then add the international cooperation, funding, combined skillsets, technical equipment, and necessary provisions to keep 120 people alive and healthy for two months at sea. All of this before the actual sampling process begins, which is a feat of technical engineering specialised for this kind of research. The vessel carrying the crew is a modified commercial oil exploration platform that has operated as a research vessel for NSF for nearly four decades. Named the JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) Resolution, the ship uses a system of interconnected pipe that drills into the sea floor to recover core samples and geophysical data. Equipped with multiple specialised labs and staffed with research groups from around the world, the vessel should be more closely compared to the International Space Station than what we may think of as a typical research boat.

A significant focus for many of the researchers onboard is the modality of decay of a former ice sheet that covered Svalbard and the Barents Sea roughly 21,000 years ago and shared many characteristics with the presently most vulnerable ice sheet on the planet, the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The WAIS is a primary focus among climate scientists because a rapid melt event would significantly raise sea levels. The dilemma is that acquiring data underneath the Antarctic ice sheet in the present is nearly impossible. To account for this blind spot researchers look into the past. By understanding when and how the heat transferred by the warm north current triggered the rapid decay of the former Svalbard-Barents Ice Sheet, we can predict better the future behaviour of the WAIS under the present global warming.

In our final day of transit Renata Lucchi takes some time to help me better understand the science of reaching into our planet’s past. Although a seasoned scientist, she speaks with the enthusiasm of a first-year undergrad who just discovered their life’s calling. She describes what it is like to see a sample come up from the bottom of the ocean for the first time, to see something that no other human has seen before. “It’s like being on another planet, but we are still on earth. So little is known about the bottom of our oceans”. Much of what we know about the region’s climate past is a direct contribution of Renata or something she was attached to in some way. “Ice Sheets, and in particular continental ice sheets, have massive amounts of freshwater that sit outside the budget of what an ocean system accounts for,” she explains.

More than just going over budget in quantity, the increase in freshwater has a profound compounding effect because of the rapid change in salinity and temperature. Like any professional scientist, though, she explains all of this with some long pauses and hesitation. “It’s not so simple; these systems are extremely complex and interacting with one another. I look at the past, the deep past. In Geologic time, 1,000 years is very fast. We see trends happening over 100,000 to 1,000,000 years. In the present, however, we are seeing similar changes occur in a few decades. This is why time is so essential; it gives an understanding of the rate of change.”

I actually met Renata four months earlier in Naples. We both were given the opportunity to see the vessel that we would call home for two months before boarding for the expedition. We ate pizza fritas and toured the ship. I learned that she had been trying to work on the JOIDES in some capacity since she started in the field, but her career brought her elsewhere. “This kind of expedition has been a dream of mine since I started studying marine geology.” The dream, unfortunately, is bittersweet because this will be the last expedition of the JOIDES Resolution within the program that made it possible. Cited as a lack of funding, international support and circumstance the ship will likely begin the decommissioning process once back in Amsterdam immediately after the expedition.

“Most people are familiar with the space program, but very few know about this program. Most grade school students are familiar with plate tectonics, but very few people know that discovery came from this program in recent history. So much of what we know about our oceans, and earth dynamics have come from this program and the work of researchers associated with the program in one way or another. Unfortunately, with this chapter coming to a close, the level of international collaboration in the future remains uncertain.” – Renata Lucchi

As we approach our first sampling site, Kristen and Renata give an overview of what the next few weeks will look like. At the end, Kristen adds that it is both an honour and a privilege to serve as a scientific leader for the final expedition of the JOIDES resolution. The tone was somber, and despite the excitement of exploration being present, the room felt the emotional weight of her words. Kristen started her career on this vessel when the wave took out the bridge, and, like so many others, this is where she met her significant other. The ship designed to study our planet’s history carries with it the history of the field of earth science and the histories of the people who made it possible. So perhaps in a twist of poetic fate, as the sun sets on this vessel’s influential scientific career, its final expedition will be so far north that darkness never arrives. During the summer months at this latitude the sun only touches the horizon’s edge, never fully dipping below.

Tim Lyons, Chris Lyons and Khyber Jones join Expedition 403 to document the final IODP expedition for the upcoming feature-length documentary: TheTime Travelers. For more information visit the expedition page on the International Ocean Discovery Program website. Stay up-to-date with expedition news on the JOIDES Resolution X(formerly Twitter)Facebook, and Instagram accounts.


Drone photographs by Chris Lyons
Wildlife photographs by Toby Matthews via Ocean Image Bank

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