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Salt and other chemicals give sea ice unique properties. (Bryan and Cherry Alexander / Science Source)

Re-creating the Arctic

Scientists use artificially frozen seawater to study the region’s mysterious sea ice

By Sara Goudarzi | March 21 , 2013
<p> Scientists at SERF have safe and easy access to simulated sea ice from their 60-foot-long saltwater pool. (Feiyue Wang) </p>

Scientists at SERF have safe and easy access to simulated sea ice from their 60-foot-long saltwater pool. (Feiyue Wang)

Last year, scientists at a Canadian university created a special outdoor pool filled with salt water. Their goal was to create a miniature version of the Arctic Ocean. The pool allows scientists to see for the first time how sea ice forms and melts, and study how frozen seawater interacts with the environment.

The Sea-ice Environmental Research Facility (SERF) at the University of Manitoba in northern Canada is 60 feet long, about 100 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. The pool’s roof can open and close to help control ice growth and keep snow from covering too much of the ice.

Until now, scientists have had trouble studying sea ice up close. The Arctic’s extreme weather conditions make traveling difficult and dangerous. “Now we can get all our data right away and be very effective with our science,” says Sarah Beattie, of the University of Manitoba.

SEA-ICE SCIENCE

Sea ice is made from frozen seawater found in the polar oceans. The salt and other chemicals in the seawater make sea ice act very differently from freshwater ice found in lakes and rivers. Scientists want to know more about this mysterious ice that helps manage the climate on our planet.

In nature, sea ice is typically covered with a layer of snow. Because of its brightness, snow cover reflects 80 percent of the sunlight back into outer space. When the weather gets warm, such as in the summertime, some of the sea ice melts, exposing parts of the ocean.

The dark ocean absorbs most of the sun’s energy, warming the waters. Heat is then transferred to the air, causing a rise in temperature, which affects both life in the region and climate around the globe. That makes sea ice an important part of our ecosystem, the system of interactions between living and nonliving things.

Scientists worry that because of the average increase in the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, called global warming, sea ice is melting faster than it ever has.

At SERF, researchers are studying what they can do to stop the loss of this important part of our planet’s natural cooling system. They sprinkle salt and contaminants similar to pollution onto the ice, change the temperature of the pool, and re-create extreme weather conditions. This allows scientists to see how sea ice might behave in the Arctic without their having to trek up north into the harsh environment of the polar region.

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