UK researchers join biggest ever Arctic expedition

20/09/2019 0 By wildfeed

20 September, 2019

On the evening of 20th September, the German icebreaker Polarstern embarked on the most ambitious Arctic expedition ever attempted. It will spend an entire year frozen in the Arctic ice, giving the international team of researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study the region.

Following a decade of planning and preparation, the ship will set sail for the central Arctic escorted by the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov. This area is usually inaccessible but Arctic ice is currently at its lowest annual extent. Gathering year round data is crucial for understanding the changing climate and the interactions between atmosphere, sea ice and ocean as well as biodiversity and ecosystems.

The German icebreaker Polarstern.

Understanding the Arctic is vital – no other region has warmed as much or as quickly. What happens at the poles is key to understanding global climate change.

The MOSAiC expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) entails unprecedented challenges. An international fleet of 4 icebreakers, helicopters and aircraft will supply the team on its epic voyage. A total of 600 international participants, half of which are researchers, will be part of the mission.

Dr Markus Frey, of the British Antarctic Survey, is part of one of the seven UK project teams. He says:

“Small salty particles produced above sea ice may influence water and ice cloud formation and therefore climate in a rapidly changing Arctic. MOSAiC provides us with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate particle sources and processes above sea ice year-round in the poorly known central Arctic ocean. The new data will ultimately improve climate models and predictions of Arctic climate and sea ice. At the moment, I am most excited about arriving at the ice floe, when all the preparations will pay off, and data will start to come in.”

The budget for the expedition is roughly 140 million euros. During the course of the year, circa 300 researchers from 19 countries will be on board, from Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. They will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea.

NERC Executive Chair Professor Duncan Wingham said:

“This unprecedented research project offers the opportunity for the UK research teams taking part to make a step-change in in-situ observations and contribute to understanding the regional and global consequences of Arctic change.”

Prof. Julienne Stroeve, University College London, also taking part said:

“New climate model projections of the future evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover show the possibility of winter ice-free conditions by the end of this century. How thick the sea ice is plays a key role in how quickly it will disappear. Our work on MOSAiC will improve our ability to measure sea ice thickness from satellites, and provide valuable information on snow accumulation.”

The questions that the researchers will be investigating during the expedition are closely linked. Together they will study the entire climate system in the Central Arctic for the first time. They will gather data on five subareas: atmosphere, sea ice, ocean, ecosystems and biogeochemistry, in order to gain insights into the interactions that shape the Arctic climate and life in the Arctic Ocean.

Research Focuses

Complex cloud processes and snow fall, sun and heat radiation, eddies and small vortices, air temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius and a comparatively warm ocean below, with only a thin layer of cracked ice separating it from the atmosphere. MOSAiC will investigate how these and many other factors together affect the heat balance and the Arctic climate.

Sea Ice
The Arctic sea ice is changing. The MOSAiC expedition will monitor the lifecycle of the ice for an entire year – how it forms, alters, drifts and cracks, how it thaws, and how, as it does so, it determines the energy flow between the air and the water.

The Arctic Ocean is not an isolated body of water. MOSAiC will investigate which currents and vortices in the ocean transport heat to the Arctic and carry it to the surface there; the relationship between the ocean, atmosphere and ice; and how they interact during the course of an entire year.

How do Arctic life forms survive extreme cold, solid ice cover and months of darkness during the polar night, and what sort of metabolisms do they have? The MOSAiC expedition will explore this mystery of life, which continues under what appear to be extremely adverse conditions, throughout a complete annual cycle.

What’s in the Arctic Ocean doesn’t stay in the Arctic Ocean: The ocean, ice and atmosphere are constantly exchanging gases, leading to, among other things, changes in cloud characteristics. During a complete annual cycle, MOSAiC will monitor these gases and other important chemical compounds in the water, ice and air.

Background information on MOSAiC

After roughly 10 days of steaming north, Polarstern’s search for the ‘perfect’ ice floe begins: Sea ice big (at least 1.5 kilometres in diameter) and thick ( at least 0.5 metres) enough to provide optimal conditions for the MOSAiC expedition for the next twelve months. Anchored at such a floe, Polarstern will get frozen into the growing sea ice, go along with the transpolar drift, pass the North Pole, and be released from the ice again in Fram Strait in autumn of 2020 – following in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen’s ground-breaking expedition with his sailing ship Fram in 1893-1896. Polarstern will be the central observatory for atmospheric, sea-ice and snow cover related, oceanographic, ecologic and biogeochemical measurements and experiments. An ice camp will be installed next to the ship with areas for these research disciplines. Four other icebreakers as well as aircraft are going to exchange the crew of roughly 100 people every two months and resupply Polarstern with fuel, food, and other goods.

Links to further information:

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You can find the latest news from the Arctic via the MOSAiC channels on Twitter (@MOSAiCArctic) and on Instagram (@mosaic_expedition) using the hashtags #MOSAiCexpedition, #Arctic and #icedrift. There is more information on the expedition at: The MOSAiC web app allows you to follow Polarstern’s drift route live:

For more information on the 20th September event to mark the vessel leaving Norway please contact Folke Mehrtens, Press officer, Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research  +49 471 4831-2007 [email protected]