Scientists Are Using Nuclear Tracers to Map Arctic Ocean Changes as It Warms Up

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jun 25, 2024

The Arctic Ocean is heating up at a rate four times faster than the rest of the world’s oceans. This dramatic shift could have profound effects on global weather patterns and climate.

Understanding these changes is crucial, and scientists are working hard to gather data that will help predict future shifts in the ocean and the atmosphere.

Using Radionuclides to Track Currents

Scientists are using radionuclides, or radioactive isotopes, to track ocean currents. These isotopes, iodine-129 and uranium-236, were introduced into the environment during nuclear testing in the 1950s.

A photograph of scientists

Source: Freepik

Although they are now dispersed, they can still be traced, helping researchers understand the movement of water masses in the Arctic.

The Synoptic Arctic Survey

The Synoptic Arctic Survey is one such effort to study the Arctic Ocean. This project aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of ocean currents and other changes in the Arctic.

A photograph of two men taking samples of ice in the Arctic

Source: Wikimedia

By tracing the paths of these radionuclides, scientists can get a clearer picture of how water moves through this rapidly changing region.

Journey to the Canada Basin

In a study published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, researchers used these tracers to map the path of water from the Atlantic Ocean into the Canada Basin.

A large iceberg floats in the Atlantic Ocean, April 26, 2017 off the coast of Ferryland, Newfoundland, Canada

Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The samples were collected during the 2020 Beaufort Gyre Observing System/Joint Ocean Ice Study expedition. This research provides valuable insights into the behavior of Arctic currents.

Two Paths into the Canada Basin

The study found that water flowing into the Canada Basin takes two main paths: one across the Chukchi Plateau and Northwind Ridge, and another along the perimeter of the Chukchi Plateau.

A photograph of frozen water, icebergs and snowy mountains in the Arctic

Source: Freepik

This dual-path movement helps scientists understand the complexity of water circulation in the Arctic Ocean.

Mixing of Atlantic and Pacific Waters

Interestingly, about 25-40% of winter water from the Pacific Ocean contains markers of Atlantic water by the time it reaches the Canada Basin.

A close up of the ocean waves crashing near shore

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The mixing occurs due to upwelling on the Alaskan Beaufort Shelf or in Barrow Canyon, which lies at the boundary of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This finding highlights the interconnectedness of the world’s oceans.


Stable Transit Times

Despite the rapid warming, the study notes that transit times for Atlantic waters entering the Arctic have remained stable over the past 15 years.

An image of the Atlantic Ocean during a clear day

Source: Wikimedia

This indicates that the currents have not significantly changed, providing a consistent basis for further study and prediction models.


Future Research Directions

The researchers plan to expand their sampling area to the continental slope near Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago.

scientist working on a tablet

Source: DC Studio, Freepik

Expansion will help reveal how water flows out of the Arctic into the Atlantic Ocean, improving our understanding of this dynamic and rapidly changing region.


Importance of High-Resolution Data

High-resolution data from these studies are important for creating accurate models of ocean circulation.

Scientists are pictured looking at test samples in the lab

Source: Wikimedia

By using iodine-129 and uranium-236 as tracers, scientists can obtain detailed information about the movement of water masses, which is essential for predicting future changes in the Arctic Ocean and beyond.


Understanding Climate Impacts

The findings from these studies are not just about mapping currents. They also have broader implications for a more holistic understanding of climate change.

View from above the Hog Butte fire in Alaska.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center/Wikipedia

As the Arctic warms, changes in ocean currents could affect global weather patterns, sea levels, and marine ecosystems, making this research vital for future climate predictions.


The Role of Nuclear Tracers

Nuclear tracers like iodine-129 and uranium-236 play a critical role in modern oceanography.

A photo of an old nuclear power plant control room, which is all gray with many meters and buttons.

Source: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

Despite their radioactive nature, these tracers are invaluable tools for scientists studying the complex movements of ocean currents and the impacts of climate change on our planet’s waters.


Collaborative Efforts in Arctic Research

The study is part of a larger collaborative effort involving multiple research institutions. These collaborations are essential for pooling resources and expertise to tackle the complex challenges posed by the rapidly changing Arctic environment.

Close-up Photo of Water

Source: Emiliano Arano/Pexels

By working together, scientists can develop a more comprehensive understanding of this critical region.