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Climate Change Cuts Climate Change Study Short

Ironic? Yes. But it could be a new reality for scientists

Icy conditions kept BAYSYS ships from making their way to the research site. (ASP - Arctic Science Partnership - Facebook)
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Doing environmental research isn't easy. From wild animals to foul weather, researchers have to jump lots of unexpected hurdles while collecting data. But as The Guardian’s Ashifa Kassam reports, for one group of Canadian climate scientists, the obstacle standing in their way was their research subject itself: climate change.

A huge study called BAYSYS launched earlier this year with the goal of understanding how climate change affects the Hudson Bay. BAYSYS is a massive undertaking. The project is composed of five research teams of scientists from seven Canadian universities and Manitoba Hydro, and costs over $11 million U.S. dollars. But in May, the first leg of the trip went horribly wrong and scientists were forced to turn back. 

Blame a bevy of icebergs for the abandoned trip. As Kassam reports, an icebreaker the researchers were using got diverted off the coast of Newfoundland when huge chunks of ice trapped boats in the area. When the team studied the ice that was holding up their boat, notes Kassam, they realized it was Arctic ice that had made its way south due to—you guessed it—climate change.

The Canadian Coast Guard tells CBC News’ Laura Glowacki that they had never seen those kinds of conditions in the area. Glowacki reports that the ice was multi-year ice, not the thinner varieties that can be found on the North American coast. It usually forms in the Arctic due to the landlocked geography of the region. But because it forms over many years instead of a single season, explains the National Snow & Ice Data Center, it’s much tougher than other ice and can be hard for icebreakers like the one used by the Canadian scientists to sail around and clear away.

According to NASA, over 13 percent of all Arctic sea ice is melting every decade. This ice melt serves as a kind of bellwether of the severity and pace of climate change. The melt is driven by a warming atmosphere, which in turn heats the oceans. As warmer water circulates, multiyear ice thins. Chunks of this ice break off and are carried along on the ocean’s currents. Thinning also reduces the insulating properties of the ice, which protects the freezing arctic atmosphere from the relatively warm ocean waters. But without this barrier, the atmosphere has no insulation from the ocean heat, further warming the planet.

In the future, that melt could do much more than cut scientific missions short. As ocean physicist Peter Wadhams notes for Yale Environment 360, scientists expect a barrage of cascading effects from Arctic ice melt. The Arctic ice that does remain is expected to absorb less heat, warming global temperatures. As permafrost melts, it spews warming methane in to the atmosphere. And all that escaping water means more atmospheric water vapor, which in turn warms the air even more.

As for the expedition, all is not lost. Kassam reports that its second leg will continue in July. If anything, it shows how important climate change research will be as long as scientists can make it to the areas they need to explore to learn more.

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