Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Arctic Research and Writing: A Lasting Legacy of the International Polar Year

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Arctic Research and Writing: A Lasting Legacy of the International Polar Year

Article excerpt


You have probably heard that the Arctic ice cap is disappearing. From observations of sea ice from space to recent sailboat transits of the Northwest Passage, findings indicate that the Arctic has less ice today than it has in recent history. What you might not know is that scientists are surprised by how quickly changes in the Arctic are occurring and are scrambling to provide hypotheses to explain why (Stroeve et al. 2007). Recently, two sea ice researchers recruited help from an unexpected place--our science classrooms.

Our senior-level physics students joined thousands of scientists from over 60 nations to examine a wide range of physical, biological, and social research topics as part of the International Polar Year (IPY). IPY is a large scientific program focused on the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctic through March 2009 (Editor's note: For more on IPY, see Editor's Corner [p. 8] and Hedley et al. [p. 27] in this issue). Through a National Science Foundation (NSF)--funded research project, our students applied physics concepts to the study of Arctic sea ice. They participated in an authentic proposal writing contest focused on dramatic changes observed in the Arctic environment and developed a research question to examine why these changes are occurring. The winning students received paid internships to perform their research projects with sea-ice researchers the following summer.


Arctic sea-ice minimum extent in
September 2007.

The black line shows the median minimum ice extent
September for the years of 1979--2000. This image was created
using Google Earth with an underlay of the NASA Blue Marble
data (see "On the web") for September 2007 and the National
Snow and Ice Data Center sea-ice extent data (Fretter et
2002, updated 2008) plotted over top.


This article describes our students' participation in a research collaboration to study Arctic ice. As part of an Arctic sea-ice modeling research project, the Representations of Ice Deformation and Growth Experiment (RIDGE), students learned physics concepts in a hands-on and engaging way.

Our changing Earth

Artic sea-ice cover--one of the main foci of IPY research --dramatically declined during summer 2007, the period of students' studies. Summer 2007 represented a new minimum sea-ice extent--the area of the Arctic Ocean that is covered by sea ice--which surpassed all previous minimums since 1979 by 23% (Figure 1). The rate of sea-ice decline since 1979 is now approximately 10% per decade, or 72,000 [km.sup.2] per year (Fretter et al. 2002, updated 2008). This rate is much faster than numerical simulations of Earth's climate have predicted.

To demonstrate the change in sea-ice levels, we can compare observed sea-ice extents against those predicted by global climate models created by Arctic scientists and climatologists. In 2007, a report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that the Arctic may be ice-free in the summertime by the end of this century (2007). However, when plotting the ensemble mean and inter-model standard deviation for the 13 climate models used in the IPCC study (Stroeve et al. 2007) alongside actual September Arctic ice extents since 1950 (Figure 2, p. 22), it appears the observed reduction is occurring much more rapidly than predicted.

Amazingly enough, the observed minimum ice extent in summer 2007 came very close to the mean minimum predicted by these models for the end of the century--meaning that the ice is melting decades faster than predicted. The trend continued this past summer as the Arctic sea-ice extent at the end of the 2008 melt season dropped to the second-lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979. The 2008 season strongly reinforces the 30-year downward trend in Arctic ice extent.

These climate-prediction models are likely missing some important physics, or the agreement between model estimates and observed conditions would be stronger. …

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