Background: Driftwood and ocean currents

The Arctic Ocean has been covered by sea ice for several hundred thousand years. However, even the oldest ice floes are less that 10 years old because it continually drifts and melts. But how are currents and driftwood actually connected? The Transpolar Drift is one of the two major wind-driven ocean currents that transport sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. It moves the sea ice from the coast of Siberia across the Arctic Ocean, past Svalbard and out through the Fram Strait.

Ocean currents of the Arctic and Barents Sea (Illustration: REIBO, Arctic size and Polarmuseet)

Nansen started questioning the role of ice, wind and water masses and how these move. Kindling his curiosity, he started his detective work by gathering different evidences and observations;

“There is even more evidence for such a current exists. In Greenland, there are no trees that can be used to build boats, sledges or other tools. The timber that comes down with East Greenlandic current and follows it up along west coast, therefore, this is a living condition for the Greenlandic Eskimo. But where does this timber come from?

Once more, we are led again to the countries on the other side of the pole. I myself, have had the opportunity to investigate large numbers of timber on both the west and the east coast of Greenland; I have also found pieces drifting in the ocean off the east coast. As past travellers, I have come to the same conclusion that the majority of the timber must be coming from Siberia and some from Amerika. These must be driven here by a constant current, driftwood that seems not to have been in the sea for long.  It is not unreasonable to assume that this timber is drifting between Frans Josef land and Spitsbergen, as the ice flakes with the cases from “Jeannette” has driven this way. As a result of such assumptions, it may also be mentioned that Siberian driftwood is found north of Spitsbergen. 

Driftwood on the northern beaches of Svalbard (Photo: Ann E. Lennert).

It may also be mentioned that the german botanist Grisebach has proven the likelihood that Greenlandic flora include a number of Siberian growth forms that can hardly be immigrated in any other way than by such a current; the seeds must have been transported here by these currents.

On drift ice of the Davis Strait, I have made observations, possibility indicating that this ice has Siberian origin. I have found amounts of mud that appear to originate from Siberia perhaps North American rivers. Looking at the wind and air pressure conditions across the Polar Sea, to the extent known, it appears that they must cause a current across the pole in the suggested direction. From the sea of southern Spitsbergen and Frans Josef land, it extends into the Siberian pack ice, with belt  of low air pressure. According to well-known laws, the winds on the north side of this belt preferably blow in the direction from east to west, and will induce a westbound current that will cross the pole to the Greenland Sea just as previously demonstrated. 

If you summarize all this, one obviously comes to the conclusion that there is a current between the Pole and French Josef land from the Siberian Sea to the Greenlandic coast.” 

(Nansen, Fram over Polhavet: den norske polarfærd 1893-1896) 


These observations inspired Nansen to explore the impact of ocean currents on the ice, Nansen’s Fram expedition. For three and a half years, frozen in the ice, Fram drifted from the pack ice north of Siberia across the Arctic Ocean and out through the Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland. Nansen had thereby tested out his theories of the driftwood and winds, as well as demonstrating that the ice drifted westward across the Arctic Ocean with the ocean currents, now called Transpolar drift.

Research Foci 1 (RF1) physical drivers, will add to this foundation of knowledge, hypothesising that the state and variability of the Barents Sea is set by a competition between cold Arctic Water, and warm Atlantic water, modulated by variability in sea ice cover and atmospheric forcing. The work package will investigate how the northern Barents Sea is influenced by these transports, and how local physical processes redistribute and modify the forcing from adjacent areas.