A journey to the top of the world: ODU researcher returns from Arctic sea ice melt study

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Posted at 7:08 AM, Jun 09, 2021

A journey to where temperatures are still below freezing and the sun never sets, at least not during this time of year.

Itqiagvik, Alaska, a town once called Barrow with just over 4,200 people, is a place most never visit, but as the northernmost point in the United States, its the perfect place for Victoria Hill to conduct her research on sea ice.

"I'm looking at melt ponds, which is just what it sounds like. It's melted water on the surface of the ice and it's the first visual clue that the ice is starting to melt," said Hill, an Assistant Professor in the Ocean and Earth Sciences Department at Old Dominion University. "What we're interested in is, is this happening earlier than it used to? Is it happening faster than it used to?"

Alaska iceberg
An iceberg near Utqiagvik, Alaska where ODU researcher Victoria Hill recently spent a week studying sea ice melt.

Hill says the ice builds during the winter but is nowhere as thick as it used to be.

During her week in Alaska last month, Hill says she looked for features on the ice that can be seen using satellite technology. Her team also drilled ice cores and put cameras under the ice.

It's all to better monitor a situation that has far-reaching impacts.

"The melting sea ice allows the coastal ice, the glaciers to melt and that contributes to sea level rise. It also means the biology of the Arctic is changing," said Hill. "That has a big impact on all the animals that are migrating up to feed and will come back down this way."

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Searching for ice features and drilling ice cores in Alaska.

The sea level rise issue is well documented in Hampton Roads, where cities like Virginia Beach and Norfolk are already combating the impacts and working to come up with ways to adapt.

"You can think of it as these guys are the canaries in the coalmine," says Hill of the people living in and around Itqiagvik.

According to Hill, who's been visiting the town since 2003, the melting permafrost is causing homes to collapse into the mud. The loss of sea ice is making it more difficult for people to hunt and roads are washing away.

"They have a big problem with coastal erosion because now the land is melting as well and the ice is melting. Here in Hampton Roads we have a big issue with flooding just with minor storms. It's something when we talk to people up there, they're like, 'our coastal road is eroding.' We're like, 'same here,'" said Hill.

Utqiagvik, Alaska is the northernmost point of the United States and sits along the Arctic Ocean, well above the Arctic Circle.

On top of conducting her impactful research, Hill says she enjoys the experience of traveling north of the Arctic Circle. A native of south England, she became an United States citizen in 2020 and frequents a part of the country the vast majority of Americans never see.

"You're not hearing all of the sounds we normally hear around here. It's completely peaceful. I like to hear the crunch of the snow under my boots," she told News 3 of the experience. "That's my favorite place to be. It's completely different."

And even though she just got back last week, Hill says she's already hoping to return to Itqiagvik next year to pick up her research; maybe our best chance to see how a changing climate and rising seas will impact our home in the not-so-distant future.