Studying the Arctic Fjords with Participatory Science and Sailboats
In June 2017, Nicolas Peissel led the 13-meter sailboat Exiles outside the port of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The ship sailed north to Greenland and into the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy. Peissel and several other crew members are Médecins Sans Frontières humanitarian workers, but they were on a 3-month scientific – non-medical – expedition on board Exiles.
The expedition explored the feasibility of participatory science using sailboats to expand data collection in fjords affected by the melting Greenland ice cap. Daniel Carlson, oceanographer at Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon in Germany and scientific officer of the expedition, sailed on Exiles for a month. After his departure, the team of non-scientists continued to collect data. The expedition log and preliminary results were published in April in Frontiers in marine sciences.
The melting ice in Greenland increases the amount of fresh water in the fjords, which changes the salinity and mixing of ocean water. Scientists do not know exactly what impact these changes will have on the marine ecosystem.
To study the contribution of meltwater to the ocean, scientists measure the conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) of the water column, but reach these remote fjords to take measurements on research vessels is expensive and dangerous. Ships also often carry multiple research teams with conflicting experimental needs and schedules. These limits leave gaps in our understanding of the evolution of Arctic waters.
“Since you’re spending so much money on a research cruise, it’s usually necessary to visit as many fjords as possible,” Carlson said, “but with the sailboat you can just stop and investigate things that you find interesting. “Sailboats also require much less fuel, which reduces the environmental impact of research in the Arctic.
Together, the Exiles the crew performed 147 CTD measurements. Carlson also took aerial photographs of icebergs with a drone to estimate how fast they are melting. He said this would not have been possible on a research cruise with tight schedules and deadlines.
Arctic crowdsourcing science
Although Carlson collected much-needed data on changes in the fjords following the melting ice, the expedition also demonstrated that participatory science is a viable option for expanding research in arctic oceanography.
“We were extremely happy to be able to collaborate with a professional scientist in a scientific institution,” said Peissel, co-author of the article. “But we also wanted to be the citizens capable of producing raw, reliable science, and we proved it.” The crew took 98 CTD measurements after Carlson left.
Caroline Bouchard, a fisheries scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources who was not involved in the study, also uses sailboats for research in the Arctic. She appreciates their affordability and versatility and would like to see more people with sailboats participate in the research. “It’s not like you can just make your own thing – you need the instruments – but I think there would be some interest from citizen scientists,” Bouchard said.
Although it takes experienced sailors to navigate the Arctic, more sailboats than ever are heading north, which could open up new opportunities for amateur scientists. Peissel said Arctic sailors generally have an intense connection to the sea and nature. “These are the people who are more than likely to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you put your instruments on board. “”
Following the success of their study, Carlson and Peissel are planning another Arctic expedition in 2022. “Scientific discipline, like humanitarianism, does not belong solely to the scientist or the humanitarian,” said Peissel. “Scientific work has historically been, and should continue to be, undertaken by members of the general public. “
—Andrew Chapman (@ andrew7chapman), science writer