Wednesday, December 21, 2005

European research tackles Arctic climate change

The North Pole is warming up faster than the rest of the world, with potentially devastating consequences for humanity. Sea-ice cover across the region has already decreased 10% during the past 30 years, lowering the salinity of Arctic waters and risking a change in the Gulf Stream's ability to convect warm water to Northern Europe whose mild winters are a direct result of this massive transatlantic 'conveyor belt'. Two new projects funded by the EU's Sixth Framework Research Programme (FP6) are tackling these issues in a big way. Observing climate change in the Arctic region is a double challenge. Not only is the environment a harsh one for scientific inquiry, but its extreme weather and unique geography demand unconventional equipment and methods for gathering data. Indeed, climate change in this part of the world is best approached collectively, which is the goal of the two projects known as DAMOCLES and IPY-CARE.

As the world has only recently woken up to the dangers of polar climate change, funding for polar research projects has been meagre and split into separate national prerogatives. By virtue of its size and scope, DAMOCLES – Developing Arctic Modelling and Observing Capabilities for Long-term Environmental Studies – aims to reverse this.

"DAMOCLES is the first large international project in polar research with a multi-million-euro budget, which is a lot in this field," said Riccardo Casale, principal scientific officer at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research. "We're hoping this big multination effort will set an example and trigger a similar unleashing of R&D money for polar research in the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan."

Still in the preparatory stage, DAMOCLES gets under way in early 2006 as a five-year Integrated Project with a budget of 16.1 million € and a consortium of 45 organisations, including ten small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), from 12 European countries. Coordinated by Prof Jean-Claude Gascard of the Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris, the project's first polar mission is still in the definition phase and will be launched in mid-2006. The mission aims to deliver an initial set of preliminary data the following year to coincide with the 2007-2008 International Polar Year, a collaborative international research effort supported by the EU and other players.

Before then, however, DAMOCLES will see its explanatory 'debut' later this year when scientists gather in Copenhagen in mid-November for the ICARP II conference where the project's organisers will lay out their objectives and expected deliverables to the scientific community, Casale explained.

Conveyor-belt blues?

If the Arctic continues to warm up – some observers expect it to become a 'blue-water' or warm-water region by the end of this century, if not sooner – there would be both positive and negative consequences. Europe's cold-water fishing industry would obviously suffer, but sea-drilling and sea-floor exploration would become easier. Warmer northern waters would also open up new shipping routes across the polar region, significantly cutting the cost and time of maritime traffic between Europe and Asia, for instance.

But most scientists agree that the negative effects would outweigh the beneficial ones. And no negative effect looms larger in the public imagination than a slowing or change in direction of the Gulf Stream, technically known as thermohaline circulation. As ice cover recedes, melt water changes the Arctic Ocean's salinity and flux, or the way currents with different temperatures mix and disperse.

"The thickness of Arctic ice cover is a major factor in the stability of thermohaline circulation," observed Casale. "If there were a sizeable change in flux from north to south, thermohaline circulation could be seriously affected."

That prospect is one of the more acute motivations for setting up DAMOCLES, whose primary objective is to install and test multi-technology systems for the near real-time observation and collection of climate change variables. These range from atmospheric conditions over the Arctic to changes in ice-cap thickness and fluctuations in sea temperature and salinity. The idea is to tie these technical sub-systems together to form a prototype for a future permanent Arctic Ocean Observing System (AOOS).

Not your normal buoy

As the Arctic is an exotic place, so, too, will be the equipment DAMOCLES intends to deploy for its prototype AOOS. Devices for taking daily profiles or samples of marine conductivity, temperature and depth will be tethered to ice structures. Satellite radar and passive microwave radiometers will scan and transmit meteorological data. Autonomous self-guiding sea-gliders will sail under the ice caps to collect temperature and salinity information, while upward-looking sonar attached to weighted buoys will float at constant depths to measure sea-ice from below.

"One of the critical things DAMOCLES must do is test these technologies against one another for reliability," said Casale. "Then, we'll have the building blocks for a dependable AOOS prototype."

What would an AOOS system do? As intended by DAMOCLES participants, it would operate as an integrated system for gathering geophysical Arctic data, transferring this to a common databank and disseminating the information to modelling centres to produce so-called climate change 'nowcasts' and forecasts about the Arctic region's evolution. Such modelling will help Europe's scientific community pinpoint the often-subtle sources of climate change in the Arctic region, while forecasting the speed, direction and impact of those changes. But how should DAMOCLES future data streams be tied to all the other groups studying the Arctic?

Holding the threads together

That's where FP6's other new polar research project comes into play. Known as 'Climate of the Arctic and its Role for Europe (CARE) – a European component of the International Polar Year', IPY-CARE is an 18-month Specific Support Action.

Although it has a modest budget of 395 000 € the project will play a key coordinating role by organising groups of experts drawn from regional, national and international polar research projects across Europe. The experts' goal is to create and prepare a pan-European science and implementation plan for Arctic climate change as a contribution to the International Polar Year. A consortium of 19 scientific institutions from 13 countries, including Russia, will organise the conferences and meetings to prepare and coordinate the research projects.

"Polar research is spread out all over the map – national, international – and needs a more coherent approach," said Ole Johannessen, IPY-CARE's coordinator, who added that he is working very closely with DAMOCLES participants. "By planning now we will be in good shape in 2007 to show national research institutes involved in polar research that we have a coherent blueprint for disseminating the results of their research."


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