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An Ambitious Research Expedition Is Getting Underway In The Central Arctic Ocean

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we go now to the central Arctic Ocean, where an ambitious research expedition is getting underway. The goal is to better understand how the Arctic is responding to climate change. And to do this, scientists are attempting to freeze their ship into the ice and then drift across the Arctic Ocean for the next year.

Reporter Ravenna Koenig joins us now from one of the research vessels nearby. And I want to note, Ravenna, this is the third day straight we've been trying to get comms to work and get through to you. So I'm so glad we've got you on a - admittedly a little tough to hear line. But welcome.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm not sure I've ever interviewed anybody in the middle of the central Arctic Ocean before. Paint me a picture of where you are, what you can see.

KOENIG: Well, we're at around 85 degrees north, so we're way up here. And we left from Tromso, Norway, so we started in open water. And as we went north, you know, spotty ice kind of appeared around us, where they were just cakes of ice floating around the ship. But now at this point when I look out the window, we're in complete ice cover, which absolutely blew me away the first time I saw it. You know, you look out, and all the way to the horizon it's ice. It's just straight white, as if you were looking over a tundra covered with snow. It's absolutely incredible.

KELLY: It sounds absolutely incredible. OK, walk me through this mission. First of all, why are scientists trying to freeze their ship into the ice? Why can't they just drift around?

KOENIG: Well, they want to observe one flow of ice and how it interacts with the atmosphere above it and the ocean below it. There are big data gaps in what they understand about the arctic system and how it works because it's a place that's obviously hard to get to and has been not observed as much as a lot of other parts of the world.

KELLY: OK, now I get it. So sticking with one piece of ice for an entire year, which has brought you to the challenge of trying to figure out where this perfect piece of ice is. And I gather after days of searching, they have found it.

KOENIG: Yes, they have found it. It's actually been pretty difficult because the ice out here in the Arctic Ocean, as you may know, has been getting thinner. But the group that's doing the research is going to set up a pretty extensive research camp on the ice itself. And some of that requires really heavy equipment. So they needed to find a piece that's thick enough to support all that, something that's a bit over a meter thick ideally.

KELLY: So hang on; a meter - just over a meter thick, so a little over three feet at least then.

KOENIG: That's right.

KELLY: OK. Go on.

KOENIG: But as the Arctic has gotten warmer, the ice up here has gotten thinner. So scientists have been out doing helicopter surveys with these big airborne sensors that give them a big-scale picture of ice thickness. They've also gone out onto the ice with snowmobiles. They've done manual thickness measurements with drills and just kind of doing these different surveys to try to find some ice that's thick enough to meet their needs for research.

KELLY: Wow, sounds like quite a process. OK, so they've found this perfect piece of ice. Let me turn you to the big question - why do all this? What exactly are scientists hoping to learn?

KOENIG: Basically, as the Arctic is warmed over the past few decades, the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has changed dramatically. It's thinner, there's less of it, and there's some big gaps in scientists' understanding of that new Arctic. So they're out here - they're going to be out here for a whole year studying the system top to bottom. Arctic sea ice is part of a really complex system that is interrelated. So the sea ice interacts with the atmosphere. It interacts with the ocean. And changes in the sea ice could mean changes in things like how clouds are formed or how much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the ocean or even how the ecosystem is functioning.

So they're trying to understand all of that. And their ultimate goal in studying it is to better reflect the arctic system in climate models. And that'll help them project things like how fast Arctic sea ice might disappear and how a warming Arctic could affect global temperatures.

KELLY: That is Ravenna Koenig reporting for us from a research vessel in the central Arctic Ocean.

Ravenna, thanks so much. Stay warm.

KOENIG: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.