DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The sea ice that used to cover the Arctic Ocean has retreated and thinned dramatically, and now a group of scientists is drifting through this new Arctic. They're gathering data to better understand what's happening to the ice and how it may be linked to other changes in the ocean, the atmosphere and the region's ecosystem.
To do this, they had to find an ice floe that their ship could freeze into and spend an entire year observing, and that was a challenge. Here's reporter Ravenna Koenig, who went along on a support ship helping with the search.
RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: In the Arctic ice north of Siberia, the Russian research vessel Akademik Fedorov is testing the thickness of an ice floe by driving through it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ICE BREAKING)
KOENIG: This ship is here to help find the floe that a second ship will freeze in next to. It's moving through ice so consolidated and vast, it looks almost like snow-covered land stretching to the horizon. Where the hull makes contact with the ice, chunks the size of couches and cars break off and turn over, water hissing as it runs down the sides. Dozens of people have come out on deck to watch, like Ian Raphael, a master's student who's studying sea ice.
IAN RAPHAEL: It's the deepest blue, and there's so much variation in it. There are, like, pockets in it. There's algae coming up.
KOENIG: This project is called MOSAiC, for Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. And the goal is to improve science's understanding of the Arctic, so it can be better represented in climate models. That will help predict things like global sea level rise from the melting Greenland ice sheet, or how quickly sea ice might disappear from the Arctic Ocean.
MATTHEW SHUPE: We need this information because the Arctic is changing so rapidly, and it's a place that we have not observed very well in the past.
KOENIG: That's Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist and the co-coordinator of MOSAiC. The last time scientists looked at the Arctic Ocean system so comprehensively was over 20 years ago. Now researchers want to get an updated look at how the physics, the chemistry and the biology of this area work during all four seasons.
SHUPE: We can't just go out there for a few weeks at a time to understand how that plays out.
KOENIG: Their plan is to freeze an ice breaker alongside an ice floe and drift with it for a year. Now, their task is finding one thick and stable enough to support the equipment and machinery they need, and to last the whole year without melting or breaking apart.
The scientists think the floe they drove through was too close to where the ice meets the water, and they worry that waves could break it up. So the ice hunt moves north. Teams go out by helicopter and snowmobile to gauge ice thickness at different spots. They use airborne sensors and take direct measurements with drills.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)
KOENIG: But after four days, the picture doesn't look great.
THOMAS KRUMPEN: They're all not looking very promising. They're all very thin.
KOENIG: Thomas Krumpen is a sea ice physicist who's part of the search. He says that even on the thicker floes, only the top foot or so is solid, stable ice. Underneath, there's a rotten layer, meaning it's degraded and slushy. Different factors could explain why the ice in this area is so thin this year, but the scientists agree that a few decades ago, it would have been far less likely that they'd see conditions like this.
KRUMPEN: There is a change that can be related to Arctic warming. Ice is getting thinner. Ice is retreating further north.
KOENIG: Then there's a breakthrough.
KRUMPEN: Welcome, everybody. So I have some good news.
KOENIG: Krumpen announces that the team on the other ship has found a piece of ice they think will work. Even though parts of it are thin, it has a centerpiece of thicker ice - in some places, 13 to 16 feet.
KRUMPEN: Really, it's like a hidden treasure. And I must say that we can be quite lucky that something like this was discovered, so great.
KOENIG: The decision's made - this will be MOSAiC's ice flow for the year. But the challenges aren't over. Fall is a time when the ice moves around a lot. Big pieces can collide with each other, and areas where the ice is thin are less likely to withstand that pressure. The motion can lead to big ridges forming, or cracks.
SHUPE: First off, I'd like everybody to stay on this side of the tower because you can see there's a crack right over there.
KOENIG: We're standing out at the edge of the science ice camp with MOSAiC co-coordinator Matthew Shupe. And he's pointing to a snaking gap in the ice several inches wide that skirts right along the edge of a monitoring tower laying horizontally in the snow.
SHUPE: We heard a sound, and the surface kind of rumbled. And then slowly this crack formed right under, like, literally right under our feet. It was pretty cool.
KOENIG: Shupe had to wait a bit to set up the tower because of that crack.
SHUPE: I don't want to be tethered to a piece of ice that might drift away and pull the tower down.
KOENIG: Dealing with ground that moves and cracks and buckles has always been part of working in this landscape. But scientists are also well aware that as they try to study the thinner ice of the new Arctic, they will likely face more of it. As things get colder this winter, Shupe thinks the ice should settle a bit, but there's no knowing where exactly this ice will drift and how it will hold up over the next 11 months.
For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in the central Arctic Ocean.
(SOUNDBITE OF CASPIAN'S "FOR PROTECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.