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Indoor Arctic Ocean Model May Reveal Secrets of Sea Ice

A new project could help improve understanding of how the dwindling sea ice interacts with the atmosphere
arctic sea ice



Image courtesy of NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The Arctic is a harsh place, with subzero temperatures and rapidly changing weather conditions.

Those circumstances can make it difficult for researchers to conduct controlled experiments, said Roland von Glasow, an atmospheric chemist and professor at the University of East Anglia, who studies the chemical reactions between Arctic sea ice and the atmosphere.

The scientist has a solution to this. He plans to build an 8-meter-cubed model Arctic Ocean at his university, where he can study how sea ice reacts with the atmosphere from the comfort of his laboratory.

The scientist just received a €2 million ($2.7 million) grant from the European Research Council to construct the sea ice chamber and conduct research on this topic. While there is an open-air experimental sea ice chamber in Canada, von Glasow said he had not heard of an indoor chamber like the one he plans to build.

"Inside [the chamber], I want to have my little lab ocean, and we are going to enclose it so that we can control the atmosphere above the sea water, and then we are just going to freeze the whole thing," he said.

One of the problems von Glasow plans to research involves the chemical reactions between sea ice and the atmosphere.

Unlike ice that forms on freshwater lakes, sea ice contains a significant amount of salt, and some of those salts are released from the ice when it freezes.

Decades ago, researchers discovered that bromine, which comes out of sea ice when it freezes, was reacting with the atmosphere to destroy ground-level ozone. But they still don't know why.

"The question is, how, fundamentally, does that work?" von Glasow said.

Strange, cold, but essential chemistry
Researchers know the reaction is related to first-year sea ice. And now that more of the Arctic sea ice melts away in the summer and then refreezes in the winter, there is more first-year sea ice.

"So the fraction of first-year sea ice is increasing and so also is the area where this strange chemistry is happening," von Glasow said.

He hopes that by mimicking Arctic conditions in the chamber, which should be built in about a year and will reach temperatures from -30 to -20 degrees Celsius (-22 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit), he will be able to learn more about this and other chemical reactions between sea ice and the atmosphere.

"There are still some uncertainties about properties of sea ice, physical and chemical properties. And the hope is that this chamber can contribute to that," von Glasow said.

Paul Shepson, an atmospheric chemist at Purdue University who also researches sea ice chemistry, said the chemistry that occurs in the Arctic is unique, as chlorine, bromine and iodine present in sea salt undergo complex reactions as sea ice freezes and those chemicals are released into the atmosphere.

"We are trying to understand this process in my view somewhat urgently, because sea ice is retreating in the Arctic. In your lifetime, probably, it will be gone," Shepson said.

Shepson said he hoped at some point to take his instruments to von Glasow's new chamber and use it for research.

The opportunity to study the reactions in a controlled environment like von Glasow's chamber is appealing, Shepson said. He pointed out that where he was currently conducting research in Barrow, Alaska, factors like fog and variable light conditions have made the conditions for research less than ideal.

"What Roland is building will be unique on the planet in terms of the ability to not only grow sea ice but to do controlled photochemistry experiments," Shepson said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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