Environment

Welcome to 'The Frozone'

The changing Arctic revealed through key scientific outposts and technologies.

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Photo Credits: Rachael Orben; courtesy of Mary Anne Pella-Donnelly (PolarTREC 2007); courtesy of ARCUS

Changing temperatures may adversely affect some species but the feisty little auks swarming about this observation blind appear to take the changes in stride. Roughly the size of a starling, the little auk is a seabird that feasts almost entirely on tiny zooplankton. It breeds in large colonies, building nests among boulders and crevices on coastal slopes and cliffs like this one at Kap Hoegh, Greenland. Researchers have found that little auks adjust their eating habits to the available conditions. However, they caution that this essential member of the Arctic’s ocean food webs may be nearing its limits of adaptability.

Photo Credits: Jeff Kerby, Eric Post Lab, Penn State University

When the sea ice melts in summer, Arctic foxes, like this one on the tundra of western Greenland, along with Arctic wolves, become isolated. But warming temperatures could extend this solitary existence by limiting sea-ice formation for extended periods during the year. Normally, wolves and foxes use the ice to travel between groups, but its absence could lead to declines in crossbreeding.

In some species, however, such as grizzly and polar bears, ice loss could increase intermixing. Researchers suggest this could also lead to substantial changes in disease dynamics.

Photo Credits: Karen Temple Beamish (PolarTREC 2016); courtesy of ARCUS

As the Arctic warms, ice and snow give way to lusher fields populated with a range of plants, fungi—like this mini-mushroom forest near Healy, Alaska—and small animals that feed on them. Research shows that mushrooms inhabiting these newly thawed areas play a key role in mediating many of the effects changing weather conditions bring. By decomposing organic matter, these pint-size fungi can influence carbon balances and the types of nutrients available to plants and animals. Continued studies of Arctic fungi will provide new carbon and nitrogen cycling data to improve climate prediction models.

Photo Credits: Bill Schmoker (PolarTREC 2015); courtesy of ARCUS

Crashing through the open waters of the Chukchi Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy pushes north. As the largest U.S. icebreaker, the Healy measures 420 feet long and plies the seas with 30,000 horsepower of diesel electric propulsion. It can slice through ice up to 4.5 feet thick. A second icebreaker, the R/V Sikuliaq, owned by NSF, is one of the most advanced university research vessels in the world. Onboard, scientists collect sediment samples directly from the seafloor. While polar oceans make up only 10 percent of the global ocean area, they strongly influence Earth’s activities.

As the Arctic continues to change, NSF will lead the way by funding innovative research to observe these changes and to create predictive tools that model future conditions.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Ryan Choi, Utah State University

As the sun peeks over the horizon at the Tutakoke River field camp in Alaska’s Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, chambers dot a field used to study how a warmer Arctic is affecting migratory animals and the tundra plants they feed on. To increase the availability of data from the many ongoing Arctic research projects like this one, NSF recently funded a new Arctic Data Center. Located at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the center will act as a library, preserving data and aiding data discovery for the Arctic science community. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NSF-funded Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE) serve as center partners.

Photo Credits: Elizabeth Eubanks (PolarTREC 2008); courtesy of ARCUS

A young girl participates in a traditional blanket toss, part of the spring whaling festival in Barrow, Alaska. She is a member of one of the more than 40 ethnic groups living in the Arctic. Since these groups depend heavily on the region’s natural resources, research exploring the interplay of weather conditions, humans and existing resources is critical to the Arctic’s future.

Through genetic studies, researchers are obtaining more accurate estimates of historical migrations within Asia and between Asia and the Americas. These studies are also providing data on the genetic adaptations responsible for human resistance to extremely low temperatures. Other studies are examining the intimate connections between whaling communities and the environment and how a changing landscape may affect this activity so intricately tied to the region’s native populations.

Photo Credits: Gifford H. Miller, INSTAAR, University of Colorado Boulder

Plant samples preserved underneath these outlet glaciers on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic led NSF-funded researchers to conclude that the Earth’s Little Ice Age began in 1275 and was triggered by repeated volcanic eruptions that cooled the atmosphere. Their findings were the first to suggest a specific start to this cold period. They suggest the “little chill” started with a 50-year episode of four massive tropical volcanic eruptions. The interplay of sea ice and ocean originating in the North Atlantic likely kept summers cold following the eruptions.

Photo Credits: Sam Dorsi, Polar Field Services

The northern lights shimmer above Summit Station, which lies near the top of the Greenland Ice Sheet, 250 miles from its nearest neighbor. The longest continually operating station on the ice sheet, Summit’s unique geography provides a virtually unlimited pristine snowfield and very little climate variability. Both factors allow researchers to detect small regional and larger-scale trends quickly.

The station provides historical as well as real-time data. Summit ice cores date back over 100,000 years, providing critical baseline data for Arctic temperature and atmospheric composition. Data from Summit also impact real-time weather prediction, particularly in the winter due to the station’s proximity to the North Atlantic storm track.

Photo Credits: Konrad Steffen, CIRES, University of Colorado

As summer sizzles, take a visual cooling break and discover the wonders of the icy Arctic. The following images show the breadth of National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research from key research outposts to important technologies used to explore the Arctic region. This vital work extends the understanding of life and landscape in one of Earth’s most critical areas.

Pictured: The glacier Sermeq Avangnardleq, located in west Greenland, was a smooth sheet until 1999. Rising summer air temperatures are driving the glacier toward the ocean, leaving its surface heavily crevassed. The Greenland Climate Network, a series of automated weather stations, monitors conditions on the ice sheet.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Craig J. Heinselman

Just north of the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast the dancing “northern lights” offer the perfect backdrop to the antenna of the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility’s centerpiece instrument—the ionospheric radar system. In operation since its delivery to the site in 1983, the system provides valuable data on the Arctic’s upper atmosphere.

With more than 20 optical and radio wave instruments available, Sondrestrom research efforts have improved our understanding of space weather by tracking solar flares ejected from the Sun, solar storms and other phenomena that can alter the upper atmosphere. All of these can cause electromagnetic disturbances that impact satellite operation and electrical grids on Earth. Other research efforts at Sondrestrom include advanced ozone monitoring and data mining.

Photo Credits: Bill Schmoker (PolarTREC 2015); courtesy of ARCUS

As this GEOTRACES sampling device meets the ocean, it closes in on nearby pancake ice in the southern Canada Basin. Unique to the polar region, pancake ice forms over time as ice crystals coagulate into thicker plates, whose edges often get rounded and raised as a result of bumping into other plates.

GEOTRACES is an international effort to study trace elements in the Arctic Ocean. These elements such as manganese, iron and mercury regulate biological processes in the ocean but are found in extremely small concentrations, some as tiny as several parts per trillion. By gathering data on the concentration and movement of these elements, researchers can provide a more complete picture of the Arctic Ocean’s past, present and future.

Photo Credits: Todd Paris, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The Toolik Field Station on the eastern shore of Toolik Lake in the northern foothills of Alaska was established in 1975, making it one of the oldest research outposts in the Arctic. Initially specializing in aquatic research, the station has grown in scope to include research on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In one such study, researchers are examining how Arctic ground squirrels control their biological clocks. Adept at finely tuning their body rhythms, these squirrels maintain their schedules even in the summer when the sun never sets. These Arctic scamps may help researchers better understand how to control human body clocks, often disrupted by ailments such as seasonal affective disorder, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and even cancer.

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