UTQIAGVIK, Alaska — The scientists walk across a frozen Arctic Ocean, dark specks in a sea of white. Pale clouds loom low over the bundled figures. The wind sends ice crystals skidding and swirling around them, erasing their footprints.
Behind a large ice ridge, the group shelters from the subzero cold and 25 mph gusts to set up their experiment. They are learning to map an area’s topography by shooting lasers across the ice and snow. But even their machines seem disoriented by the whiteout conditions: The lasers bounce off whirling snowflakes before striking their targets.
It’s yet another problem they must solve before the fall, when these scientists and several hundred others will launch the largest Arctic research expedition in history: a 12-month, $134 million, 17-nation effort to document climate change in the fastest-warming part of the globe.
Home base will be a massive German icebreaker, though the ship will spend only a few weeks under its own power. After reaching a remote part of the Siberian Arctic, the crew will cut the engine and wait for water to freeze around the vessel, entrapping it.
Then the ship — and everyone on it — will be adrift, at the mercy of the ice.
What the scientists discover during their year in the frozen north will help them forecast the future of the entire planet. As Arctic ice vanishes, many scientists expect the steady stream of air that pushes weather across the Northern Hemisphere to wobble, producing periods of punishing cold, brutal heat waves and disastrous floods.
That’s already happening. The polar vortex that gripped the Midwest this winter, the fires in California and lingering hurricanes like Sandy and Florence are all thought to be domino effects of this instability. Unless humans take drastic action, Earth is on track to exceed the threshold for dangerous warming in a little over a decade, the UN has said. These scientists are racing against the changing planet to understand what’s happening — and what is yet to come.
Struggling on the sea ice off Alaska during their training this April, they get a taste of how tough the task will be. They are steeling themselves for what awaits at the pole: profound isolation and protracted darkness, laborious experiments, cold that can plunge to 45 degrees below zero. There are countless ways the Arctic might thwart and threaten them at every turn.
“But if we can do this right,” says Melinda Webster, a sea ice expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “it’s going to give us a huge leap forward in our understanding of Earth and how it’s changing.”
Shoulders scrunched, beards of frost forming on their balaclavas, she and her colleagues continue to collect what information they can. They have no choice but to keep going, Webster says. The world attempts an expedition of this size, expense and risk only “once in a generation.”
And hers might be the last generation that can.