Breaking Through The Northwest Passage For Arctic Science

17:31 minutes

an overhead shot of a ship breaking through ice
Oden cuts through Arctic ice. Credit: Donglai Gong and Northwest Passage Project

On July 18, a group of scientists and students set sail aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden through the Arctic waterways. They were part of the Northwest Passage Project, a voyage to collect water, air and ice samples to study the Arctic summers and the effect climate change is having on the environment. 

Last year, one day into expedition, the boat ran aground and cut the mission off before it could get started. This year, the team successfully launched from Thule, Greenland and completed their three-week cruise. Oceanographer Brice Loose and marine biologist Holly Morin, coordinators of the Northwest Passage Project, talk about sea ice levels, marine mammals in the area and other Arctic science observed aboard the ship.

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Segment Guests

Brice Loose

Brice Loose is Chief Scientist aboard the Akademik Ioffe, and an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

Holly Morin

Holly Morin is the Marine Mammal Lead for the Northwest Passage Project. She’s also an marine biologist education specialist at the University of Rhode Island.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The Northwest Passage, that arctic icy shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it’s always fascinated people. Inuit communities in the area have traveled the waterway for millennia. Remember your explorers, John Cabot, Henry Hudson? They set sail for these frigid waters, looking for new trade routes. And now you can even take a vacation cruise through it. 

But one of the latest expeditions to the Northwest Passage had a different mission– to study the science of the rapidly warming Arctic. Last month, a team of oceanographers, marine biologists, ice experts, and students boarded the Oden, an icebreaker boat, and began an 18-day expedition through the passage. 

Now last year, if you remember, the team launched, but they were grounded one day into the journey. They had to cut the trip short, but this time, the expedition made it all the way from Greenland along the northern coast of Canada through the Barrow Strait and out to Melville Sound by the Arctic Ocean. The team returned to Greenland this week with lots of observations and a lost buoy they recovered that holds a year’s worth of whale songs. 

We’re going to talk about some of that– all of that. My guests here to take us through that expedition, Brice Loose is the chief scientist of the Northwest Passage Project, associate professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingston, Rhode Island. Welcome to Science Friday. 

BRICE LOOSE: Hi, Ira. Thank you. It’s great to be back here just about a year later. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And Holly Morin is a marine biologist and education specialist, also at the University of Rhode Island. Welcome, Holly. 

HOLLY MORIN: Hi, Ira. Thanks so much for having us today. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it was nice to have you. I’m glad you had a successful trip this time. 


It lasted a little longer than last time. And in your last visit, we talked to you last year right after the boat ran aground. What’s challenging about navigating through the Northwest Passage, even on an icebreaker boat, Brice? 

BRICE LOOSE: So I’d say the challenges are the same as they were last year. Invariably, you encounter ice conditions that are probably not optimal for navigating. And even with an ice breaker, especially in an environment like that, the captain gets nervous because you’re having to navigate through ice which is being pushed around by the wind. 

But then you’ve got some really narrow shore lines. And so the captain’s nightmare scenario, the boat is being pushed by the ice, and it’s eventually drifting towards the shore or into shallow water. And all of these are the factors that they kind of take into account when they figure out where we can go and what we can do. 

In that regard, we did have some of that this year. But at the same time, we were up there early, but the ice is also retreating early, which is another impact of what we saw. And so it kind of in a way was retreating as we were advancing. So we had quite a run before we finally ended up in the ice. 

IRA FLATOW: Did you notice anything immediately different, Brice, than you were expecting to see? 

BRICE LOOSE: Well, I mean, frankly, I’ll just say that compared to my previous trips to the Arctic, the weather was just uncannily pleasant. Like, the temperature really never dropped below zero degrees. We had a record number of sunny days. The wind was really low and very calm. And honestly, we were outside sometimes working in T-shirts. The students had been posting pictures to Instagram in their Hawaiian shirts on the back deck of the helo where the helicopters land. So I think the really outstanding thing was that it was quite warm in the Arctic. 

HOLLY MORIN: Yeah, I think there was one day actually where we were 57 degrees Fahrenheit, I think. It got quite warm. I started my broadcasts in my usual full heavy duty float suit. And then by the end of the day, I was just in a fleece jacket and short sleeves, and that’s it. So it was a pretty spectacular swing in temperatures just in that one 12 to 15 hour period. 

IRA FLATOW: So that’s actually the good news and the bad news, isn’t it? 

BRICE LOOSE: It is. I mean, it makes it lovely to be out there. 

IRA FLATOW: Because that’s something you’re trying to study with the effect of that warming that’s going on up there. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yeah, indeed. We’re trying to basically see how it’s impacting the water, how it’s impacting the gas burden, both of methane and carbon dioxide, that we see in the water, how it’s impacting the microscopic communities, basically the plankton that photosynthesize and provide the base of the food chain. And then of course, we’re trying to see how the rate at which ice loss is kind of moving into the ocean and how that’s freshening the ocean and how that’s moving around. 

HOLLY MORIN: And then if you look at– if you take all those factors and then you build that up to the seabird surveys that are being conducted as well while the ship is under way, it’s a great way to see what seabird species were in the area. They’re what we call an indicator species. 

So oftentimes, you can see if there’s a change happening in the environment based on what the seabirds are actually doing, where they are, what they’re eating. So by tracking those species and seeing which animals were where in certain numbers, it’s nice to put all those different puzzle pieces together and kind of get an overall picture of the environment that we were in. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk in detail a little bit more about that. Brice, let me ask you first about the microbes that you study in the water that eat methane and the part they play in greenhouse gas cycling. Tell us about that. 

BRICE LOOSE: OK. Yes, so we have been for a while, I’d say for the last 10 or 15 years, trying to figure out what exactly is the story with methane in the Arctic. We know that there’s quite a reserve of it. Mostly, it’s found in the seabed in the form of these methane hydrates. It’s like an ice crystal that sits on the ocean bottom, and you can bring it up and actually light it on fire. It will burn because it has enough methane in it. And so that’s stable at certain temperatures and pressures. 

And we know that actually since the last Ice Age, the ground has been rising as a result of rebound because the ice sheet melted away, and that took a large weight off of the continent. And so just as a result of that, we’ve seen more methane venting from the seabed. 

And what’s interesting is you can observe the methane venting from the seabed, and you can create an inventory based on that. But when you go to the atmosphere, which is where we’d expect that gas to end up, we just don’t see the gas there. Like, it’s not making it across the interface from the air to the water, or from the water to the air. 

And so the question is if we try to balance the budget, where is the missing piece? And one idea is that it’s actually the microbes, the bacteria and archaea, of which there are between 10,000 and a million in each drop of water, could be eating this as a food source, essentially, and turning it from methane into carbon dioxide. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, as the oceans warm, as the water warms, are those bacteria going to disappear themselves, the ones that recycle the methane? 

BRICE LOOSE: That’s a good question. I think one thing that we have seen and what we see is that basically it’s kind of like an “if you build it, they will come” scenario with bacteria. So during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example, there was a tremendous microbial response to the oil that was released at the subsurface during that event because they were adding dispersants to the oil as it would rise. And that caused it to sort of detrain at about 3,000 feet. 

And at that same level, the oxygen was drawn way down. And when the scientists started to do genetic analysis, they basically found a large abundance and a very rapid response of oxidation of hydrocarbons, including methane. So I’d say these guys are relatively ubiquitous. 

They’re tolerant to a lot of different conditions. The ones that are in the Arctic are designed specifically for cold conditions, so they may not do specifically that well. But the genes that they carry, which allow them to oxidize methane, those will probably be there. And in fact, they operate much more quickly when the water warms. 

IRA FLATOW: Holly, you’re a marine biologist and coordinated some of the animal studies. Tell us what types of animals you saw while you were up there. 

HOLLY MORIN: We were actually pretty lucky from what I’ve gathered from other cruises that have been in the area in that we saw pretty much all of the marine mammal species you would expect to see in the Arctic. So we saw about 20 maybe polar bears. We were treated to some moms that had cubs as well. And they were all out on the ice floes. We saw bowhead whales. We saw a pod of narwhals. 

We saw beluga whales outside of Beechey Island. Those we saw from the helicopter. We saw walrus. We saw all different types of seals. My favorite seal is the bearded seal. They have these fantastic array of whiskers in the front that look like a mustache or a beard, and that’s why they get their names. But they kind of escorted us out. They were on the individual pieces of ice as we left an area called Pond Inlet. 

And so it was great to see this diversity. It was kind of a treat. And if you wanted folks to join you on the bridge, that top deck where the captain was, all you had to say was polar bear, and it was like a stampede to the top of the boat. And there was– just to let you know, I want to say there’s nine decks, some 96 stairs from the bottom to the top of the ship– so people were trucking it up these stairs to come see when there were animals sighted. It was pretty great. 

IRA FLATOW: And you had a lot of students with you, too, right? 

HOLLY MORIN: Yes, we did. We definitely did. We had a group of 18 undergraduates that were from minority serving institutions from across the United States, which was great to have them on board and get them engaged and exposed to actual science happening on board a research vessel, let alone an ice breaker. And then we also had graduate students that were participating as well. And they were acting as the student leaders for each of the core research groups, so that they were helping guide the undergrads with their work that was happening on board the boat. 

IRA FLATOW: I can imagine it was a pretty crowded bridge by then with everybody there. 

HOLLY MORIN: Yeah. It was a pretty big bridge, though. We all kind of found our spot, and there was an outside deck if you wanted to be out there as well, or some people would just go out to the front of the ship and look from there as well. But yeah, it was surprisingly spacious. But still, we were all a close knit family type thing on that boat. It was a nice thing. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yeah, I think the calm Swedish sensibility and demeanor played in well there. Because they’re so– 

HOLLY MORIN: Even keeled. 

BRICE LOOSE: –stable and mild mannered. And they were quite happy to host us all on the bridge and entertain the questions from the students. And so it’s a very warm and welcoming crew aboard the icebreaker Oden. 

HOLLY MORIN: Yeah, they welcomed the students. That was the best part, is the students really became part of that ship. It wasn’t just the research they were doing. They really got to understand how that ship was functioning and how important it was. 

IRA FLATOW: Cold water, you’re in Swedish environs. They’re used to that. 

BRICE LOOSE: That’s right. 

HOLLY MORIN: That’s right. 

IRA FLATOW: You also worked with the local communities up there to get their observations about the area. What kind of changes were they observing, Holly? 

HOLLY MORIN: Well, what we did was we went into the community that I mentioned, called Pond Inlet. We were able to have a barbecue with them one evening, which was great. Food security is actually a big issue in a lot of Arctic communities. It’s hard to get food up there. It’s expensive. So we were happy to host a barbecue with them all, and then we were able to speak with many of the locals at that point in time. 

But we returned the second day with a group. We had tour guides from a group called the Ikaarvik, and that’s a local research group that they are actual local scientists there in Pond Inlet that are doing work, doing various research projects. But then they tried to work with other scientists from the lower 48 or other countries that are interested in doing work up there to kind of bridge the gap between traditional Inuit knowledge and then modern day science per se. 

And the interesting thing was when we brought them on board the vessel, and we had actually made a really interesting– well, we thought we made a really interesting seabird observation when we were transiting from Thule, Greenland. Rick Ludkin, who is our observer from the Canadian Wildlife Service, had seen a sooty shearwater, and that’s a bird that you traditionally see on the Northeast coast of Canada. I’m used to seeing them here in New England. But they’re not usually up in the Arctic. 

So Rick made note of that, and then when we talked to the folks from Ikaarvik, they said, oh, we see sooty shearwaters all the time around here. And we were like, really? They’re like, oh, yeah. For at least the last five years, we’ve seen them all the time. 

So Rick made note of that and then was going to share that with our contacts at the Canadian Wildlife Service to then talk further with this group in Pond Inlet. And it’s just kind of a nod to the fact of how much knowledge these Arctic communities do have and how important their perspective. And the details that they’ve been keeping on their own are so important– 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. 

HOLLY MORIN: –and to make sure we consider those and incorporate them as we continue to do research out there. 

IRA FLATOW: Very, very interesting. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Brice Loose and Holly Morin about their Northwest Passage Project. And Brice, you take ice cores, right? I understand that you found microplastics in the ice cores in the Arctic. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yes, Ira, that’s correct. So we did– 

IRA FLATOW: I don’t know what to say about that. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yeah. I don’t think we knew what to say exactly either. Objectively, we knew that this was a possibility because similar plastics had been found in ice cores in the Central Arctic even further north in the Eurasian and Canada Basin. So that’s actually how we determined that we would try to make these measurements. We were sort of following in the footsteps of the researchers who mapped that out. And we said, well, maybe we can contribute just by looking and seeing what’s in the Northwest Passage. 

And I think that the shocking thing for me was we went out to this beautiful, what’s called a multi-year ice floe, so it’s an ice floe that’s managed to survive a summer and freeze again– basically live another year. And so it’s thick. It was almost 10 feet thick. And we had to core it in multiple sections, and then we brought it back to the boat. 

And Jacob Strock and Alessandra D’Angelo– those are the two researchers who are leading that part of the work– they went through some steps to concentrate the material inside the ice. And they were worried initially that if they didn’t concentrate the entire core, they wouldn’t be able to see anything. But as they began the concentration steps, they actually realized that there was so much material in there, that then they had to sort of break it out into sections. 

And what was remarkable– and I think maybe a little bit of a shock to all of us, even though objectively, we were expecting it– was that on the amount of plastic, basically these filaments that show up at sort of the millimeter to micron scale, as well as around beads, almost like the micro beads that show up in shampoo and exfoliating body wash, those kinds of things were really abundant in the ice, much more abundant than in the water. And maybe you can even say of equivalent abundant as the microbes that we often see in the ice itself. 

HOLLY MORIN: And then they could see the– if I remember correctly– they could see the microplastics with the naked eye. They didn’t have to just look through a microscope to see them. Yep. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yeah. So even just– 

IRA FLATOW: And you’re saying they were as abundant as the algae was in the water. 

BRICE LOOSE: I mean, I don’t want to– 


BRICE LOOSE: I don’t want to make too strong a statement of that because we haven’t actually done the counting. So we have to go through some sequential steps that couldn’t take place on the ship. But we were initially worried that there would be so many algae and so much biotic matter that we wouldn’t even see the plastic. In fact, the plastic was, like, in every layer, was just as abundant and just as visible. So it was quite high in concentration. 

But again, I want to reinforce that it was much lower in concentration in the water below and adjacent. So I think what we see is that the sea ice is, as it is for many things, it’s a concentrator of the plastic material because of the way it both can trap stuff through atmospheric deposition, so stuff that’s wafted in on air masses that come into the Arctic, but also through the way it actually filters seawater through this siphoning pump mechanism that exists throughout the lifecycle of ice. So once it gets in there, then of course it’s also trapped. It’s kind of frozen in place. And that’s what we saw. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So much more to talk about. I wish we had more time. I’ll have to have you come back and talk more about this. Brice Loose and Holly Morin, both of the Northwest Passage Project and both that of the University of Rhode Island in South Kingston, Rhode Island. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. 

HOLLY MORIN: Thank you. 

BRICE LOOSE: Yeah, thank you, Ira. It was a pleasure– 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. 

BRICE LOOSE: –to talk to you. 

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk to birds. And birds see the world in color even better than we do, and how their supervision might shape their super colorful feathers– all interesting stuff about how birds see and how their feathers actually make those colors. We’ll talk about it after the break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

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