Creeping Atlantic

In 2000, we talked to oceanographer Jamie Morison of the University of Washington about a five-year climate study at the North Pole. An update on his progress so far.

Morison is in the midst of a climate study at the North Pole. His team has confirmed a general trend — of relatively salty and warm ocean waters shifting farther into the Arctic Ocean than in earlier decades. Scientists wonder if this is a natural cycle or if this is related to global warming.

Jamie Morison: I think everyone in the field felt that the Arctic Ocean is there doing the same thing it’s been doing for the last million years . . . and then lo and behold to see that it had changed was really pretty remarkable but things were so steady . . . And now that it’s been persisting for 12 years or so is also pretty remarkable.

Every year since 2000, Morison’s team has set out automated buoys that record information about the air, ice, and upper ocean. More data comes from a cable of instruments anchored to the sea floor near the North Pole. Cold and less salty water from the Arctic is part of an “ocean conveyor belt” that moderates Earth’s climate. So changes in the Arctic could impact global climate.

Jamie Morison: So we’re really curious to see how this thing plays out and then how it relates to everything else… .

Deep in the extreme Arctic, an array of sophisticated environmental instrumentation is floating in the icy ocean. A team of scientists from the North Pole Environmental Observatory is midway through a monitoring study of the world’s northernmost sea.

According to Dr. Morison, it is clear that significant oceanic changes have occurred in the Arctic in recent decades. Other scientists have also recorded major atmospheric and terrestrial changes.

Many of these changes are connected to a “spin-up” in the atmospheric circulation of the Northern Hemisphere. The last 15 years have been characterized by a lower atmospheric pressure over the North Pole and a rise in pressure in a ring at high mid-latitudes. This arrangement basically accelerates the west-to-east flow of air around the globe, causing a counterclockwise spin of the atmosphere around the pole, termed the Arctic Oscillation.

Like the El Nino phenomenon, the increased Arctic Oscillation has far-reaching effects. These include increased air temperature over the Arctic, shifts in ocean circulation, reduced sea ice cover, changes in plant growth, and thawing of permafrost, among others. Native people living in the Arctic report changes in ice conditions that affect their subsistence hunting and fishing, as well as transportation

This complex suite of interrelated atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial change is the subject of a new project, the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH), also headed by James (Jamie?) Morison. The focus of the SEARCH project is to foster international interdisciplinary cooperation in studies of the Arctic region. Ideally, this long term project will help us understand the full scope of changes happening in the Arctic, and help scientists get a handle on whether it is related to natural variability or whether the changes indicate the start of a major climate shift in the North. You can check out the SEARCH project at

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