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International polar year

Finding the flow

High-tech monitoring and traditional knowledge are revealing the secrets of Arctic sea ice.

An intimate and extensive knowledge of sea ice has been among the keys to the survival for the Inuit. For six to eight months every year, sea ice plays a critical role in daily life in northern communities for travel, harvesting, economic, and leisure activities. Yet where that ice once covered vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean from year to year, now huge portions of open water persist throughout much of the summer. Researchers that are part of the Canada’s International Polar Year (IPY) initiative are trying to improve our knowledge of sea ice and the changes it is undergoing.

The changes in sea ice reflect a more general evolution of Arctic climate, which is driven by how the region receives heat from warmer parts of the planet. This transfer of heat can take place through air or water, but while air from the south can bring heat into the north without any kind of obstruction, ocean waters are far more restricted in their movements.

Even a quick look at the intricate network of islands in Canada’s North would suggest that currents there must follow a complicated route to reach other parts of the ocean. In fact, researchers are still trying to assess the most basic features of these flows, such as how large they are, how much they vary, or how they came into being.

This information is crucial to understanding the Arctic Ocean’s role in climate change, in the past as well as the future. For one thing, since ice covers so much of the Arctic Ocean, currents must be studied underwater by instruments moored at key sites. Just getting to these remote locations can be a hazardous undertaking, not to mention returning to service the equipment and retrieve the findings every year or two.

These monitoring stations track the drift and thickness of the surrounding ice, along with changing sea levels, current, temperature,and the amount of salt in the water. They may provide answers to questions such as: How do heat, salt, nutrients and zooplankton flow through the Arctic Ocean? How does sea ice move? How does it melt and freeze? How much carbon is stored in sediment in the ocean?

Eventually, these details will become part of new simulation models to describe the behaviour of the ocean, which in turn will contribute to improving models describing past, present and future Arctic climate patterns.

To supplement scientific observations, other IPY-sponsored researchers are turning to the Inuit themselves to tap their traditional knowledge and use of sea ice. In interviews and workshops, the Inuit are helping researchers document variations in sea ice features and hazards, traditional and current ice routes and Inuktitut place names and terminology.


This vignette discusses the complex, dynamic relationship of the global system of ocean currents and their connection to environmental changes in the Arctic. Users are able to choose which Ocean region they want to learn about by selecting one of the headings featured above the text.


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