Home sci-tech A year in the ice: Scientists set sail on Arctic expedition

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A year in the ice: Scientists set sail on Arctic expedition

by Ace Damon
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Frank Jordans, Associated Press

Published Friday, September 20, 2019 16:56

BERLIN (Reuters) – An international team of researchers set out on Friday for the largest and most complex expedition ever to take place in the central Arctic, a one-year journey they hope will sharpen the scientific models that underpin human understanding of climate change.

The € 140 million ($ 158 million) ice expedition will see 600 scientists from 19 countries, including Germany, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, working together in one of the world's most inhospitable regions.

"The Arctic is the epicenter of global climate change," said expedition leader Markus Rex of Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research prior to launch. "At the same time, the Arctic is the region of the planet where we least understand the climate system."

Filled with scientific equipment, the German RV Polarstern icebreaker left the northern Norwegian port of Tromsoe, accompanied by a Russian ship, the Akademik Fedorov, looking for a suitably large block to anchor.

As the days get shorter and the sea freezes around the ship, teams rush to set up ice research stations a few miles away. Then the Polarstern and camp network will slowly drift toward the North Pole, with rotating teams of dozens of scientists spending two months conducting ice research.

Stefanie Arndt, sea ice physicist who has been preparing for the expedition for nine years, said darkness would be the biggest challenge.

"Everyone worries about the cold, but the psychological aspect of seeing nothing and knowing that there are polar bears out there is something that should not be underestimated," she told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Scientists involved in the Multidisciplinary Drift Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC, underwent firearm training. The camp will also be protected by a perimeter fence and fireworks to scare off predators.

Arndt, who will join the mission in mid-February, said MOSAiC's unique advantage over other expeditions is that researchers will be able to observe processes in the Arctic over an entire seasonal cycle.

"What's particularly interesting is the transition from winter to spring," she said, at a time when ice is usually too thick for ships to reach the Central Arctic.

Tracking changes in snow density, size and type will help scientists better understand Arctic energy flows.

"For example, how much light the snow reflects back into the atmosphere, how much it absorbs and how much light reaches the high ocean," said Arndt. "This has big implications for the ecosystem."

Light energy affects algae growth and ocean temperature, which in turn influences the amount of sea ice that melts underneath.

Understanding these and other complex processes that occur in the Arctic is essential to the increasingly sophisticated computer models that scientists use to predict weather and climate. Experts believe that any disruption to the Arctic's delicate freezing and thawing cycle will be felt further south, although it is not yet clear how.

"The Arctic is changing dramatically now and it's something we need to get into," said Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado who will participate in the expedition.

Recent changes in the jet stream – a stream of air that circulates and isolates the Arctic like a giant thermos – have allowed hot, humid low-latitude winds to move north. At the same time, cold blasts of Arctic air – the dreaded polar vortices – have brought deep freezing conditions to the continental US and Europe.

"A lot of it is hot now," Shupe said.

Concerns about global warming have spread far beyond the scientific community in recent years. The expedition begins on the same day as the global climate protests and ahead of a UN climate summit in New York next week.

"We want to provide a solid scientific basis for the important policy decisions our societies need to make to mitigate climate change," said Rex, head of the expedition.

Cooperation between scientists from many different countries contrasts with the geostrategic push of the international powers, as the Arctic, with its untapped wealth, begins to open up to exploration.

Anja Karliczek, Germany's science minister, said that, as a major industrial nation, Germany needs to take part in its responsibility to fight climate change, and financing half of the expedition's costs is in the country's interest.

Unlike Russia, China and Sweden, which will also send icebreakers to supply the expedition, the United States will not be contributing a ship.

"A US flagged ship would have been a good addition to MOSAiC," said Shupe. "On the other hand, I think the US is making extraordinary contributions," he said, citing scientific and financial support from US institutions such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

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