MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Arctic Ocean has been covered by sea ice for thousands of years. But climate change is driving rapid melting. Some projections say that by 2040, the Arctic Ocean may see its first ice-free summer in modern history. On a recent expedition, a group of young scientists had the opportunity to see Arctic sea ice for the first time and to reflect on the dramatic changes it may undergo over the course of their careers. Reporter Ravenna Koenig traveled with them.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES BREAKING)
RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: To get to the sea ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in September, you have to go through a lot of open water first. Leaving Tromso, Norway, it's five days to the ice's edge - longer than it likely would have taken decades ago. It's night when we finally get there. Many of us stand out on deck, peering into the darkness for a glimmer of white. Ph.D. student Mauro Hermann sees it first.
MAURO HERMANN: Oh, there's ice.
KOENIG: Tell me what you're looking at. Tell me what you're looking at.
HERMANN: It looks like white, and it stays there, so it's another wave. So it's a small chunk of ice.
KOENIG: This ship is headed north to help with a massive science experiment to study the changing Arctic. It's called the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC. And there are 20 graduate students along for the experience.
ROBBIE MALLETT: I thought I might cry, actually, when I first saw sea ice. I was quite worried. But I don't think I'm going to cry. I think I'm just excited.
KOENIG: That's Robbie Mallett, who studies sea ice using satellites.
MALLETT: It's such a precious resource that it's not going to go away in the winter for a while, but it's certainly going to change.
KOENIG: You might imagine Arctic sea ice as a flat, white cap on the ocean, sort of like snow-covered ice on a lake. Sometimes it does look like that. But as the days pass, we move through many different ice landscapes, each with its own colors, textures and behaviors.
LISA CRAW: There are areas that are just a tiny, little skin on the surface of the ocean which is kind of moving and shimmering as the water moves up and down.
SAM CORNISH: Flowers of frost that grow out of this young ice, giving these little, white sparks on a gray background.
MARYLOU ATHANASE: There's caves. There's little hills, ridges - really impressive, and it really, really looked like the moon.
KOENIG: Those are students Lisa Craw, Sam Cornish and Marylou Athanase. Not all on the trip are sea ice researchers. Cornish studies the Arctic Ocean, but he recognizes the ice as a poignant symbol of how our world is changing.
CORNISH: The Arctic sea ice is like the canary in the mine. It's the first thing that's really giving us this very bleak signal of climate change, which is not constrained to the Arctic.
KOENIG: Most of these students are in their 20s. That means that in the 2040s, they could find themselves on a ship like this one, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in late summer without any ice in sight. Cornish says that studying the dramatic shifts happening on Earth due to climate change are fascinating to him from a scientific point of view.
CORNISH: But then it's also really scary. And it's sad.
KOENIG: Lisa Craw typically studies Antarctic ice shelves at the opposite pole, where the ice is also melting but is much thicker - think thousands of feet. She says that seeing the thinner ice of the Arctic made her feel more urgency about what she does.
CRAW: Because it just feels like what we have here is not permanent. And I guess I've never really felt that so viscerally before.
KOENIG: Another student says the changes here have gone from feeling abstract to very, very real.
For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in the Central Arctic Ocean. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.