RV Mirai Arctic Mission 2014 Post #8 - The Known Unknowns

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I never thought I would find the situation where I would want to paraphrase one of the most famous abusers of the English language, but the words of one of America’s finest artists of baffle came to mind the other night. Though we have progressed tremendously in knowledge of the Polar Regions at the beginning of this century, the Arctic in particular remains in many ways an enigma. We are in a world of Known Unknowns. There be dragons here.

Onboard the research ship RV Mirai we are nearing the end of another cruise of Arctic discovery, not of new lands but of new insight and new understanding. We KNOW that there is much we do not know of the ocean and atmospheric physics, chemistry and biology of the Arctic and so we are here. There are huge gaps in our knowledge of “how it all fits together” up here in the Arctic. Where the Antarctic land mass has been dotted with permanent and semi-permanent research stations for decades, each adding daily to the knowledge of the southern polar region’s world, only recently have we been able to conduct as focused and near continual observation within the Arctic Ocean. It has much more difficult to set up continuing observations on an ocean as opposed to a huge continental land mass. 

Global climate change has enabled the rapid advance in knowledge of the Arctic Ocean and its workings in the first decades of this century. Slowly retreating sea ice cover has enabled ship-based researchers to venture where they had previously been denied access except for only the most powerful icebreakers. It has made the utility of previously stable “ice island” research stations less viable however, as shifting sea ice patterns and overall reductions in sea ice cover have had a negative impact on the viability those temporary floating observation stations. The International Polar Year laid the groundwork for increased collaborative research efforts that now continue almost 12 months of the year as the variously capable research ships each return to the Arctic Ocean during an increasingly longer season of open water and sea ice/open water interface research. Each year a little more of the unknown becomes known.

During cruise MR14-06 a great deal of knowledge has been gained in how polar lows generate, live and then die. The valuable simultaneous combination of atmospheric and water column observations will provide forecasters far better models to continue to develop real time weather forecasts models. Mariners and others will benefit tremendously from more accurate and timely forecasting of not only routine weather, but extreme events. Sea ice forecasts will also be improved, as we understand better the interaction above and below the surface.

In the long-term, global climate models will be improved as comparisons are made with past predications and actual observed data, fine tuning the assumptions that form the basis for the models. Already algorithms that provide the foundation of some of the models thought most reliable are being altered in part because of the data collected during this cruise. 
In gaining answers we also find new questions. Why is there an upwelling of warm nutrient rich water where previously there was none? Is the reduced salinity that seems to be a recent trend in Arctic sea water a result of less sea ice because if there is less sea to contribute to sea water saline levels due to leaching out of saline from sea ice into the water column? Old questions yet remain and so we must return again and again, working collaboratively with all interested parties to gain a better understanding of this remote environment.

We know a great deal, but we also know what we do not know and until we have a more complete picture of how this tremendously complex and delicate region works we are still venturing amongst dragons. It is not exactly terra incognita up here but we have a long way to go before it is oceanus scitus. It remains a challenge to voyage in these waters and is not for the faint of heart, but faced with dragons and sea monsters? The only monsters are ourselves in our ignorance.

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