NASA next week launches its first dedicated oceanographic research mission to study the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, officials have said.
The "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment" mission, or ICESCAPE, will put to sea on the US Coast Guard icebreaker, The Healy, on June 15.
More than 40 scientists will spend five weeks at sea on board The Healy, sampling the physical, chemical and biological properties of the ocean waters and sea ice, to try to determine how changes in the Arctic are affecting the ocean's chemistry and ecosystem.
Last year, a study using data from a NASA satellite showed that Arctic sea ice thinned dramatically between the winters of 2004 and 2008, with thick older ice shrinking by the equivalent of Alaska's land area.
Arctic sea ice is now "just a thin veneer five to 10 feet thick that is really susceptible to climate change," Don Perovich, one of the chief scientists on ICESCAPE, said on Tuesday.
One of the key efforts of the ICESCAPE mission will be to see how changes in the Arctic could be altering the ocean's ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is a leading cause of global warming, and to be able to predict future climate change, scientists need to know how the carbon cycle works in different parts of the world.
ICESCAPE will concentrate on the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska, which scientists say are particularly vulnerable to global warming.
An automated microscope on The Healy will take continuous digital photographs of phytoplankton cells to observe how many different species are in the Arctic waters and ice.
Floats with near-real time satellite communication will be placed in the ocean to measure temperature and biological and optical properties, and the scientists will work on the sea ice several hundred meters from the ship, studying the condition of the ice and sampling the ocean ecosystem.