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Rapid climatic changes are afoot in the Arctic

Currents are carrying Radium-228 and coastal sediments from Russia's East Siberian Arctic Shelf to the center of the Arctic Ocean

By Brooks Hays
Rapid climatic changes are afoot in the Arctic
Scientists measured radium levels in the Arctic Ocean while aboard the research vessel Healy. Photo by Cory Mendenhall/U.S. Coast Guard

Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Rapid climate change is happening in the Arctic, new research confirms, and scientists suggest the changes are quickly altering the geology of the land and ecosystems along the coast.

During recent Arctic surveys, a team of researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution measured surprisingly high levels of radium-228. The isotope has doubled in concentration over the last decade, which suggests significant changes on land.

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Scientists believe melting sea ice is creating a larger expanse of open oceans, enabling larger waves, which are stirring up sediments and carrying radium out to sea. The same shifting dynamics could be supplying larger amounts of nutrients to Arctic waters, fueling plankton blooms and altering local food chains in novel ways.

Researchers shared their research Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

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Radium-228 is produced by the radioactive decay of thorium, a common sediment component. It's long been used by scientists to track the movement of soil and sediment from land to sea. During a two-month journey on the icebreaker Healy, scientists traveled from the western edge of the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole, measuring Radium-228 levels at 69 locations along the way. The cruise was carried out as part of the international GEOTRACES program.

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The radium increases discovered by scientists were most pronounced in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Researchers also noted ice flows leading from the northern coast of Russia to the middle of the Arctic Ocean, roughly tracing the path of a current known as the Transpolar Drift.

The team hypothesized that these flows are responsible for carrying Radium-228 and coastal sediments from Russia's East Siberian Arctic Shelf to the center of the Arctic Ocean.

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Over the last several decades, warming in the Arctic has been more pronounced than warming elsewhere on Earth. In addition to creating space for waves, warm temperatures can thaw permafrost, freeing radium, nutrients, and carbon to erode into the ocean -- or into rivers that carry the material to the coast.

Scientists say more work needs to be done to monitor the coastal shelves in the Arctic, and to measure changes they're both experiencing and causing as temperatures rise and melting increases.

To carry out this kind of mentoring work, researchers suggest greater international cooperation.

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"Evidence from Kipp and co-workers for substantial ongoing change in the chemical environment of the Arctic Ocean emphasizes the need for sustained study of these changes and of the processes involved," Bob Anderson, a researcher and professor at Columbia University, said in a news release. "It would be great if related efforts by marine geochemists in Russia could be integrated with future studies by other nations, for example under the auspices of the international GEOTRACES program."

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