Given that an arctic explorer is faced with choppy waters, polar bear attacks and temperatures comparable to a New Haven February at the warmest part of the year, getting lost in the labyrinthine hallways of the ship is the last thing he should have to worry about. But the reality is quite the opposite for Alex Kain ’09, a member of the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project, a month-long icebreaking expedition to the Beaufort Sea.
“The ship is enormous,” he said in an e-mail. “Even after a week of being onboard, I get lost all the time and find myself constantly taking roundabout paths between destinations. I’m sure by the time I finally figure out the web of hallways, the expedition will be over.”
Kain, a former math and American studies major at Yale, is currently working as a public outreach coordinator and research assistant on the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project. Since 2003, teams of researchers, engineers and cadets from the Canadian Coast Guard have traveled to the Arctic on a Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker, a type of sailing vessel designed to navigate through ice-covered waters, in the portion of the Arctic Ocean just north of Alaska, the Northwest Territory and the Yukon.
The project seeks to understand the impact of global change on the physical environment. Researchers utilize such techniques as deploying buoys that monitor the conditions of the Arctic Ocean, obtaining data from ice profilers, investigating water pathways through the Arctic Ocean and collecting samples of plankton, ice and ocean.
The hope, Kain said, is to figure out “what’s going on with the Arctic and how it got that way.”
“There is a sense of urgency to the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project,” he said. “We’re working to establish and baseline quantitative description of the conditions of the Arctic so scientists can better understand the Earth’s changing environmental, ocean and climate conditions. We’re up here on the cutting edge of this essential research.”
Although Kain is the only Yalie currently onboard for this trip, the University has further ties to the expedition through Mary-Louise Timmermans, Yale professor of geology and geophysics. Timmermans has been involved in the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project over its seven-year trajectory and has traveled to the Arctic three times.
Timmermans echoed Kain’s sentiments about the goals of the research project, saying new technologies are now helping researchers to understand aspects of the Arctic they previously did not know much about.
“We have access to more data than ever before and higher resolution images,” she said. “We can see small eddies, can measure the heat transport, and we can understand how the atmospheric circulation works with the ocean circulation. We’re really trying to understand the system.”
Kain has been keeping the rest of the world up to date on the expedition’s process via a personal blog — called “Kain Up North” — and official dispatches on the expedition’s Web site, one of his primary responsibilities as public outreach coordinator. While his personal blog is mainly for friends and family, the dispatches are a part of a larger effort to engage the public in federally-funded research and to increase awareness of the issues of climate change.
Kain said he got his job on the expedition thanks to Yale’s distribution requirements. As a second-semester senior who needed a science requirement to graduate, Kain enrolled in professor David Bercovici’s course “The Origins of Everything.” As he neared graduation and began to receive rejection after rejection from banks, consulting and real estate firms, Kain approached Bercovici and said he was interested in fieldwork. Bercovici put Kain in touch with the researches of the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project, and Kain finally had the opportunity to do “something [he] always wanted to do,” he wrote on his blog Sept. 10.
On Sept. 17, Kain joined the team of 30 participating researchers who hail from the United States, Canada, Japan, China and Korea and are led by Andrey Proshutinsky of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the primary funders of the project.
Mark Pagani, a Yale professor of geology and geophysics who is not directly involved with the project, said it is especially important to understand climate change in the Arctic as global warming becomes more and more of a threat.
Marine ecosystems are extremely temperature-sensitive, and even a small increase in atmospheric and ocean temperature can have dramatic consequences, he said.
“The situation is potentially grave because we can anticipate large changes in the future of our climate,” he said, adding that measurements taken over the last century provide very strong evidence for global warming. “How that impacts marine life is yet to be seen. The consequences are potentially very far-reaching.”
Right now, Timmermans said, researchers are working to obtain information about the Arctic to form a basis of comparison for changes in the climate, noting that data-collecting satellites were launched only in 1979.
But there is never a simple answer with the Arctic, she said.
“It’s important to understand that it’s a very complicated system, especially when it comes to arctic sea ice,” Timmermans said. “It’s really difficult to say what the trend is.”
Correction: October 5, 2009
A print version of this article included a photograph that mistakenly identified Alex Kain ’09. Kain was not in the picture, which depicted two Coast Guard cadets in an emergency drill.