The Science The changing Arctic environment is a critical region for both scientific research and societal interest.

Scientists on an iceberg.
Scientists in the Chukchi Sea. Image Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Students and scientists that participate in the Northwest Passage Project will be conducting a wide range of research activities during the 2019 expedition into the Canadian Northwest Passage.

Science Research Overview

Scientific data collection in extreme environments, such as the Arctic region, is exceedingly challenging, and these regions are identified as being chronically data-poor. Despite the broad understanding that climate change is affecting the Arctic at a rate that outpaces much of the rest of the planet, there are significant gaps in scientific data about the region.  The Northwest Passage Project will help fill these chronic data gaps, using of a suite of oceanographic instruments throughout the duration of the ship’s transit in the Northwest Passage.  The science activities are motivated by the overarching goal to understand how waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (CAA) have changed as a consequence of the secular warming trend over the Arctic Circle.  The Northwest Passage Project scientists approach this goal using a multi-disciplinary, ocean-based emphasis to explore the changes in four thematic areas: changes in transpolar drift through the CAA, changes in water column chemistry impacting greenhouse gases, changes in distribution and abundance of two vulnerable levels of the Arctic food web – plankton and seabirds.

Part of the Northwest Passage. Map from the Atlas of Canada, Northern Wall Map.

Scientists will investigate the increased freshwater storage and export from the upper Arctic ocean due to a warming Arctic. As ice melting occurs, increased freshwater is accumulating in the Arctic, resulting in a large freshwater anomaly. Freshwater inputs can have dramatic impacts on ocean circulation, particularly when freshwater is discharged into the North Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic.  The CAA, and particularly Northwest Passage, is one of the principal conduits for freshwater transport from the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. There is uncertainty about the magnitude of the flow of water through the various restricted outlets from the Arctic to the Atlantic. One of the pathways for this freshwater transport can be found in the Northwest Passage, where the Northwest Passage Project expedition will take place.

Chemistry of the melting Arctic and marginal seas: Water column chemistry affecting greenhouse gas fluxes

The concentration and isotopic composition of methane and carbon dioxide in the Arctic Ocean and atmosphere are of great interest, as both are greenhouse gases and the sources and flux of both between the ocean and atmosphere are important components of the global climate system. The Arctic Ocean generally absorbs carbon dioxide, but ice cover limits air-sea exchange. Measuring carbon dioxide and its isotopic composition can provide information about the carbon system’s sources and fluxes into the atmosphere. Methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is found throughout the Arctic Circle, and the Arctic appears to be an ever growing source of methane to the atmosphere. Methane is found in land-based permafrost and as methane ice or methane hydrates, which are distributed along the seafloor. With less sea ice cover, there can be an increased flux of methane into the atmosphere from the ocean.  However, some microbes in ocean water use methane as a food source.  If microbial breakdown of methane is rapid enough, it may serve to offset the methane that escapes to the atmosphere. There is little data to provide estimates of this methane breakdown in Arctic water. The Northwest Passage Project will study this microbial breakdown of methane and the rate at which it occurs in the Northwest Passage region.

Scientists tread ice and snow. Canada Basin of Arctic. Credit NOAA Jeremy Potter

Ecosystem surveys of Arctic habitats in transition: Distribution and abundance of zooplankton and phytoplankton

As the waters of the Arctic warm and the sea ice cover decreases, the Arctic surface ocean ecosystem is undergoing considerable changes. Habitats are changing and moving, perhaps disappearing, and species distribution and abundance may be changing rapidly.

To observe phytoplankton and zooplankton, the Northwest Passage Project will periodically conduct zooplankton net tows in the upper water column (100m and less). The contents of the nets will be catalogued. The organisms collected in these net tows will be counted with a laboratory bench-top Flowcam.  The Flowcam counts and images micrometer size particles using an imaging microscope. This provides the ability to identify and quantify ‘particles’ from some sampled volume. These particles can be sediments, phytoplankton, or even zooplankton. This imaging system will generate a library of images for each run and store them for processing later.

Ecosystem surveys of Arctic habitats in transition: Distribution and abundance of seabirds

In addition to the water column studies, there will be a marine bird study. Marine birds play an important role in marine ecosystems. Their abundance and distribution can be used to monitor changes and variability. It is very valuable to have offshore data on sea bird distribution. The Northwest Passage Project cruise will use a standard method to perform seabird counts and contribute to the sea bird survey database of the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Open Data Policy

The Northwest Passage Project will disseminate results through the project website, meeting presentations, and peer-reviewed publications. All analyzed measurements will be stored in the NSF-supported Arctic Data Portal and all appropriate Canadian and Inuit science databases, such as the Canadian Wildlife Service’s sea bird database.

Courtesy of Vancouver Maritime Museum.

Shipboard Science Team

Brice Loose, PhD., Co-Principal Investigator, Expedition Chief Scientist, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Donglai Gong, PhD., Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Holly Hogan, Canadian Wildlife Service