During the 4th International Polar Year 2007–2009 (IPY), it has become increasingly obvious that we need to prepare for a new era in the Arctic. IPY occurred during the time of the largest retreat of Arctic sea ice since satellite observations started in 1979. This minimum in September sea ice coverage was accompanied by other signs of a changing Arctic, including the unexpectedly rapid transpolar drift of the Tara schooner, a general thinning of Arctic sea ice and a double-dip minimum of the Arctic Oscillation at the end of 2009. Thanks to the lucky timing of the IPY, those recent phenomena are well documented as they have been scrutinized by the international research community, taking advantage of the dedicated observing systems that were deployed during IPY. However, understanding changes in the Arctic System likely requires monitoring over decades, not years. Many IPY projects have contributed to the pilot phase of a future, sustained, observing system for the Arctic. We now know that many of the technical challenges can be overcome.
The Norwegian projects iAOOS-Norway, POLEWARD and MEOP were significant ocean monitoring/research contributions during the IPY. A large variety of techniques were used in these programs, ranging from oceanographic cruises to animal-borne platforms, autonomous gliders, helicopter surveys, surface drifters and current meter arrays. Our research approach was interdisciplinary from the outset, merging ocean dynamics, hydrography, biology, sea ice studies, as well as forecasting. The datasets are tremendously rich, and they will surely yield numerous findings in the years to come. Here, we present a status report at the end of the official period for IPY. Highlights of the research include: a quantification of the Meridional Overturning Circulation in the Nordic Seas (“the loop”) in thermal space, based on a set of up to 15-year-long series of current measurements; a detailed map of the surface circulation as well as characterization of eddy dispersion based on drifter data; transport monitoring of Atlantic Water using gliders; a view of the water mass exchanges in the Norwegian Atlantic Current from both Eulerian and Lagrangian data; an integrated physical–biological view of the ice-influenced ecosystem in the East Greenland Current, showing for instance nutrient-limited primary production as a consequence of decreasing ice cover for larger regions of the Arctic Ocean. Our sea ice studies show that the albedo of snow on ice is lower when snow cover is thinner and suggest that reductions in sea ice thickness, without changes in sea ice extent, will have a significant impact on the arctic atmosphere. We present up-to-date freshwater transport numbers for the East Greenland Current in the Fram Strait, as well as the first map of the annual cycle of freshwater layer thickness in the East Greenland Current along the east coast of Greenland, from data obtained by CTDs mounted on seals that traveled back and forth across the Nordic Seas. We have taken advantage of the real-time transmission of some of these platforms and demonstrate the use of ice-tethered profilers in validating satellite products of sea ice motion, as well as the use of Seagliders in validating ocean forecasts, and we present a sea ice drift product – significantly improved both in space and time – for use in operational ice-forecasting applications.
We consider real-time acquisition of data from the ocean interior to be a vital component of a sustained Arctic Ocean Observing System, and we conclude by presenting an outline for an observing system for the European sector of the Arctic Ocean.