Arctic expedition

by Catalina Myers  |   

USCG Healy Icebreaker
Jeffery Welker, Ph.D. and professor in UAA’s Department of Biological Sciences, embarked on a research expedition aboard the U.S. Coast Guards Healy Icebreaker to study and document the dramatic changes the Arctic is experiencing due to climate change. (Photo courtesy Jeff Welker)

On Aug. 25, Jeffery Welker, Ph.D. and professor in UAA’s Department of Biological Sciences, University of the Arctic research chair and affiliated with the University of Oulu, Finland (UOulu), embarked on a scientific research mission with a team representing UAA and UOulu to investigate the dramatic changes the Arctic is experiencing due to climate change. His research is co-funded by a National Science Foundation Arctic Observing Network RAPID award and UOulu’s Arctic Interaction High-Risk-High-Reward program. It is supported in part by the Academy of Finland, Profile 4 award to UOulu.

With colleagues from numerous Arctic nations, the U.S., Finland, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Greenland, Welker boarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Healy Icebreaker and departed from Seward. The international research team plans to spend 60 days or more at sea traveling along the western coast of Alaska, through the Canadian Northwest Passage and into and throughout Baffin Bay, researching what he describes as the “freshening of the Arctic.” 

“It’s an opportunity for us to transit through some really important regions of the Arctic and take some important measurements along the way,” said Welker. “This will help us better understand what it means to lose all this sea ice.” 

Welker said as this region continues to experience an injection of new moisture into its atmosphere, the result has been a rapid decline of sea ice and large expanses of exposed ocean water. He said the freshening of the Arctic’s atmosphere is one of the most dramatic changes occurring in the north with significant impacts on weather, precipitation patterns throughout the northern hemisphere and the delivery of freshwater in the form of snow and rain necessary for habitat and community health.   

In addition to the "freshening" of the Arctic, Welker said a congruent issue is the elevated presence of dissolved organic C, an ancient carbon derived from thawing permafrost landscapes. The carbon is transported by glaciers, ice caps and thawing permafrost landscapes and the Greenland Ice Sheet into the bays, fjords and coastal environments of the Arctic Ocean. Welker said they have yet to determine the impacts of the additional nutrients introduced into the Arctic Ocean, but says the consequences will affect both human and animal food systems relying on the dependable sustainability of these northern fisheries. 

“These fundamental changes are really beginning to happen, and we have the opportunity to take quite a few measurements and document some of these really big changes happening throughout the Arctic,” said Welker.

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