Drifting through ice: the largest Arctic science expedition ever conceived by Dina-Leigh Simons

A year-long scientific expedition has landed in the Arctic in search for more answers on climate change. This is the largest scientific expedition ever conceived, with many experts from several countries involved in the project.

The German Research Vessel Polarstern has landed in Arctic ice.

The Research Vessel Polarstern is now just over two-weeks into its year-long journey. It departed from Norway on 20th September 2019 towards the central Arctic zone. The vessel settled in an ice floe on 4th October 2019 next to the Siberian side of the ocean basin. Over its time drifting through the ice, the RV. Polarstern will be home to 600 scientists from 19 countries including Britain, Germany, USA, France, Russia and China. The expedition will be led by Professor Markus Rex from Germany’s ‘Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research.’ The project is named MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate).

Scientists are stuck in ice

The vessel will technically not be sailing around the Arctic at all. It embedded itself into sea-ice at precisely 85 degrees north and 137 degrees east. Sixteen potential locations were investigated with the aid of satellite imagery and helicopters. A floe measuring approximately 2.5km by 3.5km was chosen to be their new home for the next year. The vessel will now drift across the top of the Earth until it is released by the ice between northeast Greenland and Svalbard in October 2020. Accurate projections of wind and real-time analysis of current conditions are critical to prevent the vessel from being pulled into the Beaufort Gyre: a large clockwise movement of water and ice in the Arctic. The Beaufort Gyre would be extremely difficult to escape from. Previously, collecting data in the Arctic was a momentous task due to extremely thick ice. However, this vessel will be accompanied by icebreakers to clear a path through the harsh ice conditions. The team plan to build a ‘small research city’ around the Polarstern.

The route of Polarstern throughout its year-long journey. Picture credit to the BBC and Google Earth.

What will Polarstern study?

The multimillion-pound project aims to collect data on a wide range of aspects including wildlife, the atmosphere and the ocean. Scientists will use this data to improve models predicting future climate change scenarios. Collecting data on changes in the density, size and type of snow will help scientists better understand the flows of energy at the poles. They want to answer questions such as: How much light snow absorbs and reflects back into the atmosphere? How much light reaches the upper ocean? How does this impact wildlife? The biggest advantage of this year-long project is that data from across all seasons will be collected. According to Stefanie Arndt, a sea ice physicist who will join the vessel in mid-February, the most interesting time will be the shift from winter to spring.

Don’t we already know that Arctic ice is melting?

Although climate change scientists always talk about melting ice caps and rising sea levels, it is extremely difficult to explain fully the impacts of these events. Areas in which climate change impacts the most are often the hardest to study. Rex states that: “The Arctic is the epicentre of global climate change. At the same time, the Arctic is the region of the planet where we understand the climate system least.” It is vital for scientist to understand fully the impacts of climate change to help prepare for our undetermined future, which is expected to see progressively harsher weather events and increased frequency of natural disasters. Specialists believe any disturbance to the Arctic’s fragile cycle of freeze-and-thaw will be observed further south. Other processes, such as the jet-stream, may also be impacted by climate change.

The ship plans to be replaced by Polarstern II after it returns from its immense journey. You can keep track of RV. Polarstern on its path through the ice by following this link: https://www.meereisportal.de/en/seaiceexpedition/where-is-polarstern.html.






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