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Famed Polar Scientist: Arctic Ocean Research at a Turning Point

Veteran oceanographer Eddy Carmack has witnessed five decades of accelerating change in the Arctic. As he accepted a lifetime achievement award in January, he talks about why ‘pan-Arctic’ research that crosses borders and disciplines is now imperative.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Eddy Carmack working in Kane Basin on one of his first Arctic field expeditions in 1969.Courtesy of Eddy Carmack

TROMSØ, Norway – On August 22, 1994, oceanographer Eddy Carmack was on board the Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis St. Laurent icebreaker when it became one of the first two North American icebreakers, alongside the United States vessel Polar Sea, to reach the North Pole.

Over the last five decades, Carmack, now 75, has established a reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished Arctic oceanographers, participating in over 90 field investigations in both polar regions and authoring more than 200 scientific papers. He is one of the few scientists to have witnessed the Arctic Ocean move from a period of relative stability toward ecological upheaval under changing climate conditions and report back on the region’s changing story.

Last week, in recognition of his lifetime contribution to Arctic research, Carmack received the inaugural International Mohn Prize for Outstanding Research Related to the Arctic. The award was presented at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, in January, where Oceans Deeply caught up with Carmack to discuss his life spent on the leading edge of change in the Arctic.

Eddy Carmack received the inaugural International Mohn Prize for Outstanding Research Related to the Arctic at a ceremony in Norway in January. (Terje Mortensen/Arctic Frontiers 2018)

Oceans Deeply: How did you first become interested in research in the Arctic Ocean?

Eddy Carmack: In 1969, I was a graduate student at the University of Washington studying physical oceanography, but more into the fluid mechanics side of things. I was studying late one night and a fellow student walked into my office and said he had to take his PhD exam and needed somebody to take his place on this trip to the Arctic. I said, “Sure,” and a month later found myself in a single-engine plane with skis, landing on the ice between Greenland and Ellesmere Island.

There were three of us. We were all in our mid-20s, with absolutely no experience in the Arctic. We were tossed out on the ice, with a couple of tents, cook gear and sleeping bags and enough grub for a while. The pilot said, “I’ll be back in a month or so, so be ready.” It was a trip that I recall as true adventure. I thought, this is what I want to do now. Flying over the sea ice for the first time, it’s a memory you just don’t forget.

Eddy Carmack in the Arctic in 1969. (Courtesy of Eddy Carmack)

Oceans Deeply: At that time, what were the primary research focuses in the Arctic?

Carmack: Everything was pretty much [divided into disciplines]. I was in physical oceanography, and the question at the time was there was this huge polynya at the north end of Baffin Island that never freezes. There was no explanation for how it formed. One idea was that there was warm subsurface Atlantic water coming down out of the Arctic Ocean to this particular channel, and somehow getting mixed to the surface and keeping the ice open. That was typical of the kinds of studies that were done.

The idea of the Arctic at the time, in everybody’s mind, is it was very remote and isolated, disconnected from the rest of the world, pristine and unchangeable. We never had the vision to think that it was a scene that could be altered. When you come forward an additional five decades, we find out that it’s not pristine: Contaminants reach the Arctic. It’s not remote. It is fully connected with the global ocean and, more and more, with the global atmosphere. And it’s the most rapidly changing part. It’s a complete flip on how the Arctic was perceived at the time, even by the scientific community.

Somewhere along in the mid-1980s, information started to become available that greenhouse gases were a real issue and could change things. The programs in the mid-1980s were trying to get funding to continue the survey mapping exploration side of things, but also to collect time series to see if things were indeed starting to change. Needless to say, this was not a widely accepted view in the mid-1980s and the funding was not forthcoming. It was quite difficult.

Oceans Deeply: At what point did you really start looking at how climate change was impacting the Arctic Ocean?

Carmack: We were testing a new upward-looking sonar device with a very narrow beam. We would put a couple railway wheels as an anchor on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, and then have a 3.5 kilometer (2.2mi) rope that would stop some 50 meters (164ft) over the ice, and the sonar would map the thickness of the ice. We were able to keep that going for four years before funding vanished. Four years is not enough to detect a trend or a time series, but there were hints then that the ice was more variable than we thought.

Oceans Deeply: Moving a few decades forward, what are the new frontiers of research in the Arctic Ocean?

Carmack: In the Arctic Ocean story, chapter two was the realization that the Arctic is changing faster than any other place on Earth – warming twice as fast. The loss of sea ice has become the leading signal. The ice is getting thinner and breaking into smaller pieces. I was on an icebreaker in 1994 to the North Pole, and it was like cement. When ice is cold, it is hard. But when it starts to warm, even though it’s still there, still white and looks like ice, it becomes much softer. All of this means the atmosphere is able to interact with the ocean because it’s no longer so protected by that very hard ice cover.

Eddy Carmack at work on the the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX) in the early 1970s. AIDJEX was the first major Western sea ice experiment constructed specifically to answer emerging questions about how sea ice moves and changes in response to the influence of ocean and atmosphere. (Courtesy of Eddy Carmack)

This opens up chapter three. Evidence is mounting that the changes are not confined to the surface, but are extending deeper and deeper into the ocean itself. One of the most dramatic examples we’re aware of right now is the ocean north of Siberia, wherein the ocean structures that were typically found at the northernmost tip of the Greenland Sea are starting to migrate along the continental margin of the Arctic Ocean, into the Nansen Basin. The signals of that transition extend about 1,500 kilometers – that’s a huge distance for an ocean to undergo change to depths of 400 or 600 meters or more.

The retreat of the ice not just across the continental shelf, but now across the shelf break and into the continental margin has opened up another mechanism: upwelling. Upwelling occurs when the wind forces water away from the coast at the surface. When that happens, it has to be replaced by water at depth, and that means that you have upwelling now along the shelf break that is bringing warmer and more nutrient-rich waters up onto the shelf. That’s a whole new mixing regime.

Oceans Deeply: What are the next steps scientists need to take to understand how the region is changing?

Carmack: Chapter one was when we all worked within our disciplines. Chapter three, and the page-turner being chapter four, means we have to work without disciplines. We really have to understand how this is operating as a system; how the physics are affecting chemistry, acidification and the biology. How waters from the Atlantic Ocean are bringing signals into the Arctic Ocean that are altering it. And the same thing over on the Pacific Ocean side – how waters from the North Pacific, pouring across the Bering Sea and entering the Arctic Ocean are bringing chemical properties, nutrient-rich waters and even organisms with them. Zooplankton, which are a primary food source for fisheries, don’t have to be specifically produced in the Arctic Ocean anymore; they can be brought in by these incoming waters.

Oceans Deeply: For you personally, what do you have planned in the future?

Carmack: The second part of my career was largely icebreaker work. Our team convinced the Canadian Coast Guard to make their vessels science-capable. Prior to that they were just icebreakers. That’s how we ended up going to the North Pole and being part of an expedition with 70 scientists on board. They were the first North American icebreakers to reach the North Pole.

Eddy Carmack on an Arctic expedition in the early 1970s. (Courtesy of Eddy Carmack)

So, we know a lot about the structure of the Arctic Ocean – how it’s layered and how systems are interacting. But what do we know about the shallow waters around the edges? The Arctic Ocean has 30 percent of the continental shelf in the world and 35 percent of the shoreline. This is where people live and travel, it’s where fish swim, and they have their own ecosystems. But these areas are not all that amenable to icebreaker access. My passion right now is to start utilizing smaller vessels and instead of having them go home every winter, back to Halifax or St. John’s or Victoria, let them stay in the communities. Vessels that are in the 40- to 60-foot range that can be community-based, and hopefully community-owned and operated, that can be used for research. That’s what I’ve been working on since I officially retired from the icebreaker work.

Oceans Deeply: Do you any final thoughts?

Carmack: I think it’s important that we work in a pan-Arctic sense. A lot of the focus of the work I’ve done in the past decade or so is to come up with simple, but meaningful regionalizations of the Arctic so that the public doesn’t think we’re dealing with one big homogenous place. People seem to think the Arctic is nothing but flat, white, unchanging – maybe the way I saw it 49 years ago.

But landscape varies from place to place. We need these regionalizations. It’s like that joke about the blindfolded people touching an elephant. The people at the end think it’s a rope, and the person at the ears think it’s a fan. If all the research done in the Arctic is within national confines, then we end up with a picture of the Arctic that doesn’t fit together. This can be serious because we’re trying to project the future, and the projections don’t work if you try to project one side of the Arctic to the other side of the Arctic. Management and investment decisions, like “Do you build a fishing fleet?” cannot be universal. A pan-Arctic perspective without disciplinary or national boundaries is imperative.

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