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Environment and Outdoors

Maine Scientist Is Leading Expedition To The Top Of The World To Uncover Climate Complexities

Ida Kinner
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

A Maine-based scientist is leading an international expedition of some 40 researchers to the top of the world, where they will explore the poorly understood dynamics of Arctic weather in an era of rapid warming. The scientists want to test whether processes now underway might serve to slow global warming, at least a bit.

Dr. Paty Matrai is an ocean scientist based at the Bigelow Laboratory, in East Boothbay. But right now she is on a small island off Greenland, ready to set sail for the High Arctic on a Swedish ice-breaker called the Oden. She and a Swedish colleague are leading a group of several dozen scientists on a two month mission.

First, they have to find an ice floe suitable for an ice camp.

“It means that the ice-breaker is tied to a piece of ice about a kilometer wide and long,” says Martrai. “The most important thing is that the ice needs to be stable enough to allow people to work on it. We may even have to go all the way to the pole and to the other side in order to find such a piece of ice, because right now it's another very warm year again, and the ice in the arctic is rather.. .what we call rotten."

Funded in part by the Swedish and U.S. governments, the multi-national team moored to that floating hunk of ice will include meteorologists, atmospheric physicists, specialists in fluid dynamics and some scientists with niche specialties.

"There is a team from England, that all they do is... bubbles. There is about three or four who are more on the biology of the surface of the ocean ... and I am one of those," Martrai says.

She will be looking into how sea spray contributes to cloud formation. She says the spray can include organic particles in a kind of "microgel,” or: "Snot, effectively, that is naturally available in the water, which is released by marine phytoplankton as well as by marine bacteria."

Water droplets collect around those particles, forming clouds of varying clarity or opacity. She's looking for the conditions at and near the sea's surface that will contribute to denser and whiter clouds.

"The smaller those particles are, the whiter the cloud is,” she says. “And the whiter a cloud is the more heat it will reflect back into space."

Instead of acting as a heat trapping blanket, these cold-climate clouds can bounce heat away and may slow the warming of the climate, or at least warming in some parts of the Arctic, Matrai says.

But, she adds, there are many complex feedback systems at work. Some could slow warming, and some might speed it up. Describing them in better detail, she says, will help scientists create more accurate computer models of climate change.

"We need to quantify what's happening there in order to get the clouds right. If we get the clouds right, then we get the heat balance right.”

Nearly 'round-the-clock sunlight, Matrai says, will tempt eager researchers to nearly 'round-the-clock work, and he says one of her most important tasks will be to help the team avoid burnout. This is her third foray to the High Arctic since 2001.

The 2018 Oden team is expected to strike its ice camp there and sail home by September 20.

Originally published July 31, 2018 5:33 p.m.