Researchers Prepare for Historic Arctic Expedition


Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer and Research Associate Kevin Posman spent mid-March in the small coastal town of Utqiagvik, Alaska. They drove snow machines, took a course in snow stratigraphy, and practiced polar bear safety, all in preparation for an even more remote and wintry journey – months on a ship locked in sea ice and drifting across the Arctic Ocean.

This fall, they will join the largest-ever Arctic research expedition, called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). Its scope is mammoth: a comprehensive, year-long study of sea ice dynamics in the region. Archer and Posman will measure gas fluxes as part of the atmospheric component of the project.

"As the Arctic warms and the sea ice is diminished, we will feel increasing impacts of this change around the globe," Archer said. "This is our best chance so far to understand how this influences what the planet’s future climate will look like."

By sampling wind that travels across the ice, the researchers will measure the exchange of gases between the ice, ocean, and atmosphere. Powerful greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and ozone constantly flow between these important components of the polar ecosystem. Quantifying the gas fluxes is crucial to helping researchers better understand and model how the Arctic sea ice is changing and impacting the planet.

The Arctic exerts a singular level of control over Earth’s climate. The region’s sea ice forms a polar ice cap, which influences everything from global temperatures to atmospheric circulation. Changes in these circulation patterns can create atmospheric wobbles with far-reaching effects, such as when the now-infamous "polar vortex" changes latitude and chills areas that typically experience milder winters.

"Studying the Arctic is like looking into the future, because that region is experiencing a much higher rate of warming than most of the rest of the world," Archer said. "It's essential that we understand the annual cycle in the Arctic so we can anticipate how it will continue to change."

In addition to enabling groundbreaking research and a historic expedition, MOSAiC will also encompass an impressive logistical ballet. Scientists have modeled the flow of ice across the Arctic Ocean to anticipate and plan for the RV Polarstern’s path over the course of the year. The ice floe surrounding the ship will be protected to ensure that life aboard the ship doesn’t contaminate the nearby study sites.

At any given time between September 2019 and October 2020, about 60 people will live aboard the Polarstern, half of them scientists. Research teams from 17 countries will make the long journey north to the ship. Specialists will study every facet of the environment that affects sea ice – from the ocean depths to the atmosphere.

"The power of these big multidisciplinary endeavors is that you get an incredible dataset that's just not possible with the people power or expertise of only one research group," Posman said. "What’s great about this project is that we’ll be able to talk with the other teams aboard and relate our measurements to one another’s, making them even more meaningful."

The first leg of the journey begins on September 20, when Archer and the other researchers and crew aboard the Polarstern depart from Tromsø, Norway, and sail north. For the more than 600 people involved in MOSAiC, the following calendar year will be marked by the six legs of the icebreaker’s epic journey across the Arctic. Posman will join the project in November, sailing into the polar night of winter – complete darkness that lasts from December until February. In total, he and Archer will sail on four of the six legs, traveling by icebreaker and eventually by plane in order to join and depart the ship.

"Opportunities to collect a dataset like this come only once in a generation," Archer said. "It’s incredible that we get to be involved in such a vital project."

The upper two images are courtesy of JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks.