Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface Project Update

Citizen Scientists Train a Thousand Eyes on the North Pole

During expedition cruises, tourists participate in collecting scientific data and contribute to ongoing observations of sea ice conditions in the Arctic.

By , Alex Cowan, Jennifer Katy Hutchings, and

All eyes were on the ice as the Russian icebreaker 50 let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory) plowed forward. The destination was in sight for the 130 passengers on board for the cruise of a lifetime—the North Pole. They had sailed across the Arctic Ocean, which has undergone major losses of summer sea ice in recent decades. The ocean that once was covered by ice several years old and several meters thick is now dominated by a layer less than 1 year old and less than 2 meters thick.

Polar tourism is an established and increasingly diverse industry, and a significant portion of it consists of what is known as “expedition cruising.” Relatively small (80–200 passengers) ice-capable cruise vessels, equipped with fleets of rubber boats for excursions, traverse large areas of the Arctic and Antarctic for months at a time during the summer season. These vessels can act as research platforms, an activity that tour operators and paying passengers increasingly see as a positive addition to the cruise, fitting well within a program that is already strongly focused on education.

During July and August of 2015, two of us (L.F. and A.C.) were employed as expedition staff for four round-trip cruises from Murmansk to the North Pole on the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker 50 let Pobedy with the tour company Poseidon Expeditions. The ship’s itinerary included repeat traverses from the edge of the ice pack all the way to the North Pole and back again, making it an ideal platform for observing and recording the state of the sea ice cover over the course of a summer melt season.

Citizen scientists take a moment to stand &334;at the top of the world" as they encircle the North Pole. Credit: Lauren Farmer
Citizen scientists take a moment to stand “at the top of the world” as they encircle the North Pole. Credit: Lauren Farmer

The purpose of these North Pole cruises is to take paying “adventure travelers” to Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic and then to stand on top of the world at the North Pole while providing an entertaining and educational experience. As part of the guides’ role as educators, we developed an observation program where passengers were intimately involved in the collection of data about the state of the sea ice cover.

Because the research project was a late addition to the cruise program, we announced it to the passengers at the beginning of each cruise. Interested passengers learned more fully about the aims and techniques during a lecture on sea ice. The sea ice observation program included an ice watch while the ship was in motion, ship-based and aerial video and photography, and on-ice measurements at the North Pole.

Watching the Ice

The passengers conducted an ice watch while the ship was in ice-covered waters. The team implemented the exact protocols used by scientists on research cruises, using the Arctic Shipborne Sea Ice Standardization Tool (ASSIST) to create consistent data sets. Every 2 hours, passengers viewed the ice from the ship’s bridge and described the ice conditions. They recorded data, including ice concentration, ice thickness, melt pond coverage, topography, and meteorology. We trained passengers by guiding them through each observation, using images and help sheets posted on the bridge.

At all times, members of the expedition team, who had received training in advance of the cruises, were there to inform the observation process and ensure consistent observations. The data gleaned from these observations were rapidly made available to both Arctic researchers and the public. The findings from this and similar cruises can contribute to reports of ice conditions and to forecasts of sea ice, and they are generally of interest to people concerned about the state of the Arctic sea ice cover.

A rail-mounted camera provided continual video and photographs of ice conditions during bridge observations. Data on ship position, heading, and speed were integrated into the video stream; the combination of video and ship speed provides insight into the overall strength of the ice pack. Additionally, researchers mounted a camera underneath a helicopter during sightseeing flights, giving an overview of ice conditions.

Citizen scientists measure melt pond depth at North Pole.
Fig. 1. Citizen scientists measure depth profiles for a melt pond at the North Pole. Credit: Lauren Farmer

Walking at the Top of the World

Halfway through the cruise, the ship was moored to the sea ice at the North Pole for 8 hours, allowing the passengers a chance to walk on a frozen ocean and enjoy a moment on top of the world. It was also an opportunity for the team to make important measurements describing ice surface conditions, including melt pond characteristics, snow depth, and ice surface properties (Figure 1). These are all critical components in determining the albedo of the ice cover.

Fig. 2. Photographs of the ice from each cruise, with a representative track from Murmansk to the North Pole via Franz Josef Land. These images can be analyzed to determine the seasonal evolution of melt ponds. Credit: Alex Cowan
Fig. 2. Photographs of the ice from each cruise, with a representative track from Murmansk to the North Pole via Franz Josef Land. These images can be analyzed to determine the seasonal evolution of melt ponds. Credit: Alex Cowan

There are very few opportunities for in situ observations of the state of the sea ice cover, and thus, this project benefits the science community in a number of ways. Citizen scientists aboard cruise ships are providing valuable scientific information. In this instance, the round-trip cruises provided observations of the spatial variability of the state of the ice cover. We have conducted four of these cruises to the pole, which adds a temporal component that can follow the ice evolution from early melt through summer to fall freeze-up. The observations can be used to define current ice conditions and inform sea ice models, and they can be integrated with satellite observations. Figure 2 shows a typical cruise track of the ship and photographs of the ice from the four cruises.

After the Cruise

Additionally, this project accomplished a stated aim of the expedition cruise industry: to create a “corps of ambassadors” who return home feeling connected to the area in which they’ve traveled and who will work to protect the polar regions. On each of the four cruises, a small but remarkably dedicated group of passengers attended most or all of the ice watches and enthusiastically participated in the measurements at the North Pole ice station. Giving them the opportunity to participate in research aided in their understanding of the state of the Arctic sea ice cover, accomplishing the tour operator’s aim of providing an educational and entertaining experience. Additionally, some stated that opportunities to take part in scientific efforts would influence their cruise choices in the future.

This is a fledgling event, but the expedition cruise and scientific communities have responded favorably. We are now working to expand this effort and have been attending various conferences to present the concept to both the expedition cruise industry and the scientific community. Expedition cruise industry groups for the Arctic and Antarctic are very receptive to these efforts, developing a stronger focus on citizen science and facilitating research opportunities on board. Current efforts are directed at extending this particular project to future summer seasons aboard 50 let Pobedy and expanding the effort to include other tour operators, thereby increasing the scope of data collection.

A long-term aim is to demonstrate that a diverse range of projects could be incorporated into the itineraries of expedition cruise vessels and that passengers and tour operators are already interested in doing so. This would significantly increase the number of marine research platforms available to the science community, especially in polar regions.

Author Information

Lauren Farmer and Alex Cowan, Sea Ice Research Team, Thurlaston, Leicestershire, U.K.; email: [email protected]; Jennifer Katy Hutchings, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis; Don Perovich, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Hanover, N.H.

Citation: Farmer, L., A. Cowan, J. K. Hutchings, and D. Perovich (2016), Citizen scientists train a thousand eyes on the North Pole, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO054989. Published on 30 June 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0