Typing the word ‘Arctic’ into Google Images brings up a huge array of bright and beautiful photographs like the ones shown below. This is because the Arctic is usually studied in the summer when the ocean is more accessible, the temperatures aren’t too severe and the sun is constantly in the sky. This however biases our knowledge as almost all of the data gathered on the Arctic is from these summer months. During a recent interview with Arctic researcher Alexey Pavlov, I learnt that this is one of the many challenges that scientists in the field are working hard to overcome.
Although it may look pretty cool, working in the Polar Regions is extremely challenging and researchers who brave the elements must be both mental and physically fit in order to deal with the harsh weather conditions and heavy labour that this job entails. For one, the polar environment is anything but welcoming. Despite the gloriously bright photos above, the Arctic is actually submerged into darkness for half of the year and the temperatures are frequently sub-zero. On an average spring day (-30C), scientists have to wear up to 3 layers of wool under their water-tight suits, a balaclava, a facemask, a hat and 2 pairs of gloves!
Another rather unique challenge of working in the Arctic is the presence of polar bears. They may look cute and cuddly from a far but I doubt anyone would think that if they came face to face with one! With their incredible sense of smell, polar bears often come to investigate the equipment set up by researchers and have been known to play with or even kidnap certain bits of kit. On a more serious note, polar bears can be very dangerous and are a serious consideration when planning an Arctic expedition. An average polar bear weighs approximately 500kg and can run over 25mph (40kph). Although attacks on humans are rare, scientists often post polar bear guards when working on the ice to ensure that everybody is safe and secure. Before an expedition, researchers are also trained to use a flare gun and a rifle just in the case the worst does come to worst.
And the unique challenges don’t end there! To gather data, scientists may need to set up their equipment on large ice floes. As time progresses, these floes begin to break apart (see below) and scientists must rush to take down and rescue their instruments before they fall in to the ocean. A large ice floe can split into hundreds of smaller ones in just a few hours leaving bits of equipment stranded on top of tiny ice chunks. These must be rescued by scientists as quickly as possible to ensure their instruments and their data return safely to base. For longer expeditions, this may mean that equipment has to be set up and taken down multiple times over the course of the study.
So we’ve established that there are many challenges to working in the Polar Regions but what are the up sides? Well one of the most positive aspects of Arctic research is how multidisciplinary the studies are. For example in the paper that I wrote about last week, the researchers were looking at the phenomenon of phytoplankton blooms occurring under thick sea-ice. In order to understand what was really happening, input was needed from many different researchers with a wide variety of backgrounds. The phytoplankton paper alone involved biologists, marine ecologists, sea-ice physicists, chemists, and atmosphere scientists to name but a few and all of this expertise needed to come together to properly interpret and explain the data they gathered. This is why the paper had contributions from over 40 authors!
Now I don’t know about you, but to me at least, Arctic research is a very cool but very niche field so one of my first questions for Arctic researcher Alexey Pavlov during our interview, was how he became involved in such an area.
‘I guess it was a coincidence in a way, as it often is with career paths. I always loved nature so I ended up being a geography student at St Petersburg State University in Russia. There were loads of different options to specialise further and for me I chose Marine Science/ Oceanography and my first supervisor just so happened to be an Arctic researcher. No one in the family had done anything like it before but in 2006 I got the chance to go to the Arctic to do some field work and since then I’ve done about 15 expeditions and been back nearly every year.’
Alexey currently works for the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) who carry out both scientific research and environmental monitoring of the Arctic and Antarctica. They monitor everything from climate change and biodiversity to pollution and geology and these findings are then used to advise the Norwegian authorities on matters relating to the Polar Regions. The information produced at NPI contributes to a better understanding of on-going anthropogenic climate change. As a part of the global climate science community, the NPI’s voice has helped to develop important global policies such as the recent UN Paris Agreement in which multinational research was used to form an agreement concerning issues such as emissions and climate change. For me, this highlights just how relevant and critical Arctic research really is and explains why researchers will happily tackle the types of challenges described above year after year.
Alexey studies light focusing particularly on how it interacts with the ocean and sea-ice. This includes factors such as how much light is reflected by the ice, how much is absorbed into the ocean and what factors affect this. This is important as both land and aquatic plants take up sunlight light and convert it into chemical energy via a process known as photosynthesis. This energy is then transferred through all life on earth as the plants are eaten and their energy passed through the food chain. What’s more, understanding the fate of light in the Arctic is particularly important as it contributes towards the heating of the ocean and melting of the polar ice caps.
Since he started in 2006, Alexey has completed over 15 Arctic expeditions. Most of these are typical, short expeditions that range from 1-3 weeks long. One of these expeditions however, N-ICE 2015, was a 6 month long trip covering some the winter months that scientists are often unable to study. Their research vessel, Lance (shown on the left), was frozen into the ice-pack and drifted with it for half a year to study various aspects of the Arctic over the transition from winter to summer. This expedition provided invaluable insight into a season we know little about and has produced numerous publications in many different fields of study.
So there you have it, a brief insight into the world of Arctic research just in time for polar week. Although I’m far from an expert, it seems to me like the work is challenging, exciting and most importantly crucial to our understanding of the world we live in. So if you’re looking for a new job, I’d say a career as a polar researcher would certainly be a cool one! If you want to know more, why not take advantage of #polarweek and ask some of the very friendly #polarpeople any questions you may have. I know from experience just how lovely they are!
On that note, I would like to finish by saying a big thank you to Arctic researcher Alexey Pavlov for taking the time to answer my questions on all things Arctic; these posts wouldn’t have been possible without his help!
If you missed last week’s post, you can find out more about the N-ICE 2015 Arctic expedition and one of the publications that came from it here. And for more amazing research and super cool photos, why not follow OceanSeaIceNPI on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.