The Race to Study Arctic Waters

 thanks to the climate crisis, temperatures in the Arctic are on the rise and the region’s sea ice is on the decline. New opportunities are opening up for fishing, research, pleasure, transport, mining, and oil and gas industry expansion. Traffic in the Arctic has ramped up accordingly, with the number of ships off Greenland’s coast, as well as the northern coasts of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia, increasing by 25 percent between 2013 and 2019, and the actual distance traveled jumping 75 percent over the same period.

Fishing vessels like the Northguider make up the largest share of this Arctic traffic, but cruise ships and other passenger vessels, cargo and container vessels, and tankers carrying oil, gas, and various chemicals are also creeping up in numbers. All of this traffic increases the risk of oil spills, not just because there are more ships, but because the Arctic’s environment is still harsh and dangerous.

Unpredictable weather and free-floating ice remain, and the changing climate is expected to bring yet higher winds and waves over the coming decades. Moreover, ships that divert from existing routes stray far from well-established help, says Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, chair of a working group on emergencies for the Arctic Council, a forum for Arctic states, Indigenous communities, and other northern inhabitants.

Oil spills—both large disasters and chronic, smaller spills—are the “most significant threat to the marine environment” from this increase in shipping, the Arctic Council says. Unfortunately, scientists still know very little about the region’s marine ecology, and many local communities are ill-equipped to deal with maritime disasters. With ship traffic continuing to rise, nations are scrambling to improve remote responses to spills and accidents. And scientists are racing to collect as much information as they can about the Arctic as it is now—a picture against which to measure and hopefully mitigate inevitable catastrophe.

A year before the Northguider incident, researcher Ionan Marigómez from the University of the Basque Country in Spain, made a trip to Svalbard to collect mussels. A diver who accompanied him dipped repeatedly into the frigid water to grab bags full of specimens. Marigómez and his team dissected some of the mussels right away, removing their digestive glands and gills and immediately freezing them with liquid nitrogen to preserve key indicators of the mussels’ health that can be changed by the stress of transport. For less finicky measurements, like the ratio of flesh to shell, the mussels could be frozen whole. Some of these samples were destined not just for the lab bench, but for long-term storage in an environmental specimen bank—an archive of samples carefully curated to provide a snapshot of an ecosystem at a particular point in time.

The Race is for science and understanding our Arctic oceans!

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