CORVALLIS - An international research team is preparing for a return trip to a North Pole ice camp to study the Arctic Ocean's influence on, and response to, global climate.

A key focus will be the mixing of the currents from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which can affect preservation of the region's ice cover, said Kelly Falkner, an associate professor in Oregon State University's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. Falkner will be traveling to the ice camp on April 1.

Scientists are in agreement that the Arctic sea ice cover has diminished about 7 percent in area during the last few decades. At the same time there have been dramatic shifts in atmosphere and ocean circulation in the region. While some scientists speculate global warming is causing the changes, other researchers say the shift may be the result of a combination of factors.

"We know we are looking at a system in transition," Falkner said. "The Arctic Ocean is different today than in the late 1980's and early 1990's when large changes were first reported."

The changes could be cyclical or part of a long-term fundamental change in the environment, Falkner said.

The ice camp, which is run by the University of Washington for the National Science Foundation, is in its second year of a five-year program. The $3.9 million project includes scientists from the Japanese Marine Science and Technology Center in Yokosuka City, the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle and OSU.

Falkner, a chemical oceanographer, will focus on mapping where the various waters from the Atlantic and Pacific meet to form the Arctic Ocean. Her team plans to conduct a hydrographic survey to collect ocean data from five areas, starting at the pole and traveling for 300 miles toward Alaska. Traveling by small plane, the scientists will land on the ice, drill a hole and use instruments to measure temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. Falkner will also take water samples to assess ocean chemistry.

The information will be used to plot a vertical slice of the ocean waters that compares measurements across a wide area. The data will help scientists evaluate broad changes in ocean circulation and determine where the currents in the area are originating.

Last year, researchers surveyed a 350-mile area from the North Pole toward Ellesmere Island, Canada - the first ever conducted in that area of the Arctic. Preliminary data indicates the mixing zones where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, which shifted significantly in the past 10 to 15 years, are on the move again.

One key factor in the success of the field program will be the weather, Falkner said. The researchers only have a small window of time to conduct their studies and travel by small plane throughout the region can be treacherous, she said. She expects to depart the ice for her return to OSU by April 14.

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Kelly Falkner, 541-737-3625