Scanning Ice: Up close with a Sea Ice Physicist

Scanning Ice: Up close with a Sea Ice Physicist

JWC met up with sea ice physicist and arctic explorer Till Wagner to discuss ice-scanning technology, the behaviour of bergs and what their bottoms really looks like.
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“Glaciers are fast-moving tonnes of ice, but you can model them like honey.” For Polar Oceans physicist, Till Wagner, arctic expeditions beat crunching numbers at home. After four expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic, and not a small amount of desk time in the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, he’s well versed in the intricacies of the ice.

And it’s definitely melting. In the Arctic, dramatic temperature changes in the summer months have always affected ice volumes, with coverage reaching its annual low in the relatively balmy September climate. But data gathered in the last five years paints a gloomy picture of the ice’s future. According to Scientific American, at 3.4 million square kilometres of ice coverage, this year’s Arctic minimum was 800,000 square kilometres smaller than the 2007 record. The head of the Polar Oceans Physics group, Cambridge Professor Peter Wadhams, predicts that all-summer sea ice might be gone by 2015.

The expeditions become more problematic as the ice dwindles – equipment can drift off on broken bits of berg, whilst polar bears appear where they shouldn’t. The methods of data collection – “an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) with upward facing sonar” – sound rather straightforward; if somewhat less efficient then that of the local Inuit hunters. In 2010 they piloted sled-mounted depth sensors, coursing across huge expanses of sea ice in north-western Greenland, before feeding surprisingly accurate measurements back to the scientists.

Wagner is keen to stress that he is a sea ice physicist, not a climate scientist. But now these two modus operandi are nigh on inseparable, what are the Polar Oceans unit’s key concerns? “Melting ice doesn’t raise sea level in the Arctic,” Wagner points out. “The most important climate effect is the warming of the atmosphere. The sea ice acts as a refrigerator, it reflects the sun. Dark open water absorbs all the heat.” The less ice there is, the more rapidly the sun’s radiation raises the water temperature. And with most of the icebergs’ mass below water level, the ice melts faster too. This has a knock-on effect for global warming. According to Wadhams’ dire estimates, the decimation of the Arctic ice throughout the summer would have a warming effect roughly equivalent to all human activity to date.

Other fears are, as yet, unsubstantiated. “With the decrease in temperature difference between the Arctic water and the continent, another big concern is the loss of convection currents and how this will affect the global current system.” Scaremongering film The Day After Tomorrow foreshadows what such a weather shift might look like, but this is pure fantasy (Current calculations suggest the melted sea ice would have to far exceed its current volume for any noticeable change to occur).

There are more accurate ways of presenting the bigger picture. Last year, London based scanning specialists ScanLAB accompanied Wagner to Norways Fram Strait, North West of Svalbard. Using millimetre perfect 3D scanning technology the team documented 26 ice floes, mapping the surfaces and exact dimensions of the structures. In a new Architecture Association exhibition, Frozen Relic which opens this weekend, scale replicas of the floes, digitally fabricated from frozen sea ice, will melt in real time in front of a gallery audience. So those of us who will never see the icebergs in situe can at least watch one melt.

For better or for worse, trade routes are opening up as the ice falls away, reducing the distance between Western Europe and East Asia by approximately 30%. But Wagner suspects the worst is yet to come. Some of the world's largest undiscovered oil and gas deposits lie under shallow seas on the broad continental shelves off the northern coasts of Alaska, Canada and Russia, and the race to claim them has already begun.

According to USGS estimates released in 2008, "The Arctic Circle encompasses about 6% of the Earth's surface, an area of more than 21 million square kilometres, of which almost eight million square kilometres is onshore and more than seven million square kilometres is (offshore) on continental shelves under less than 500 metres of water."

But claiming offshore reserves might be harder than the big players, BP, Imperial Oil and Chevron, originally thought. In the FT, John Dunn, lead analyst for Canada and Alaska at Wood Mackenzie, the natural resources consultancy, reports treacherous working conditions, “The waters of the Beaufort Sea, one of the main exploration areas, are treacherous, poorly charted and far further from potential help than other Arctic exploration areas such as the Greenland coast, northern Alaska and Russia’s far north.” Not to mention the commensurate costs and risks associated with building a fixed pipeline for export.

More drilling promises a bigger boost for the Arctic economy. Locals have already adapted to onshore developments, but the occurrence of anything like the Gulf of Mexico disaster would decimate a region that depends almost entirely on ocean industries. Is there any legislation to inhibit what companies like Shell can do out on the ice? Wagner shakes his head. It doesn’t look good.

Frozen Relic: Arctic Works by ScanLAB Projects runs from 12 January – 9 February 2013 at AA Gallery, 36 Bedford Square, London.

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