Expedition Begins to Illuminate Arctic’s Future


The largest ever Arctic research expedition set off two years ago to create an unprecedented record of data from a year in the icy Arctic Ocean. The efforts of hundreds of international scientists, including two from Bigelow Laboratory, are now bearing fruit as researchers release findings.

Project scientists recently published three articles from the MOSAiC expedition in the journal ELEMENTA. The series of papers highlights the importance of viewing the Arctic environment as a collection of parts that make up a whole. They give an overview of changes occurring in the atmosphere, ocean, and the snow and sea ice that covers it. The results present a picture of intertwined climate processes in the central Arctic, which is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

“These results show how much more dynamic this region is than we thought,” said Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer, a co-author on the paper. “It's changed more rapidly than we expected, and that's pretty apparent when you sit out there and study it for a year.”

Short for “Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate,” the MOSAiC expedition was enormous. It was a comprehensive, yearlong study of sea ice dynamics and climate that included more than 300 experts from 20 countries. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, teams of scientists gathered continuous data measurements from a ship that was frozen into the sea ice to paint a comprehensive picture of intertwined processes in the Arctic – which have impacts on weather and climate worldwide.

“An ocean that has historically been frozen for a good part of the year may no longer be covered with ice," said Bigelow Laboratory Senior Research Associate Kevin Posman, a co-author on the paper. “That is going to have a huge impact on gas transfer, water transfer, and other environmental processes, and it will send ripples across the globe.”

Archer and Posman each spent months on the MOSAiC expedition. Their research uncovered new insights into how important gasses like carbon dioxide and methane interact with ecological systems and move between water, ice, and the atmosphere. They also saw how air masses from the south impacted air chemistry in the Arctic, further linking it to global weather systems.

“Like everywhere else, the biology and physics of the ocean help determine the composition of the atmosphere in the Arctic,” Archer said. “There's an exchange of key gasses that depends on biology as well as ice and water conditions. These processes are intricately linked, and we're trying to unravel how they might respond to, and influence, climate change.”

This research is the beginning of what promises to be one of the largest coordinated series of scientific publications to date. The three newly published studies set the groundwork for years of research by dozens of science teams to understand the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

“This work is really the foundation for the future of the research,” Posman said. “It illustrates how we, as a scientific community, are going to take all of these different measurements from MOSAiC and answer interdisciplinary questions. We can go through our own data with an eye on the broader work that's being done and see how it fits into the bigger picture.”

Photo credit: Kevin Posman