How is the most important Arctic mission ever going?


The Polarstern ship, on which about a hundred people have lived for about two months, including scientists and crew members, is approaching the North Pole, drifting in what is the most important scientific mission in the Arctic of history. Having overcome some difficulties linked to the choice of the ice platform on which to position in order to be trapped and move thanks to ocean currents, the Mosaic mission is proceeding as planned, studying the effects of global warming on the region, one of the most exposed on the planet to climate changes

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Polarstern had left September 20 from Tromsø, Norway, and has been trapped in the ice since early October. Thomas Krumpen, a scientist at the German institute who organized the expedition, the Wegener Institute, and who accompanied Polarstern in his first month of sailing aboard the Russian ship Akademik Fedorov, explained to the New York Times that the search for the right ice shelf was not easy, because most were too thin. Some of the scientific equipment that scientists have to use in the mission are very heavy, and they need a layer of ice thick enough to support them.

Two crew members install a generator outside the Polarstern. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Outside the ship will also have to be built a landing strip for the planes that will arrive with the supplies and that will transport the scientists back and forth when the ice is too thick for icebreakers. At the moment the platform is still not solid enough for aircraft to land on, but scientists are hoping it will get thicker with winter.

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Stefan Hendricks, who is part of the team responsible for monitoring the ice, wrote on Mosaic's blog that the choice of platform was made with a first phase via satellite, and then with inspections of areas that seemed suitable. After finding the right one to house the ship, the surrounding area was mapped to locate the right places for the various equipment that the scientists were supposed to install. These analyzes, explained Hendricks, were partly rendered useless by a series of fractures that subsequently occurred in the ice around the ship, caused by strong winds. Some equipment has been moved, and scientists have had to build rudimentary bridges to link the platforms together and retrieve finished cables under the ice.

(Mosaic Expedition)

The first week after it got stuck in the ice, the Polarstern was pushed to the south, that is in the opposite direction to the desired one: but then the motion of the platform returned to respect the forecasts, and the ship is now proceeding at a speed of about 8 kilometers a day.

Part of the Polarstern crew. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

A few days after Polarstern got stuck in the ice, in the Laptev sea off the Siberian coast, it was dark 24 hours a day. Now the ship is less than 500 kilometers from the North Pole, and if everything goes according to plan it will disengage next summer once it reaches the Fram Strait, which separates the Svalbard Islands from Greenland.

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Jessie Creamean, a researcher at Colorado State University aboard the Polarstern, told al New York Times of having already installed on the ice around the ship a device that calls C-3PO, as one of the droids of Star Wars, to collect particles and water from the air and study how clouds are formed in the Arctic region. He is also the head of a team of 12 people who leave the ship every Monday and collect about sixty ice samples which are then delivered to the various scientists for their studies.

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Among the things that happen to a ship trapped in the Arctic ice, there are also the visits of polar bears: so far they have all been peaceful, although as a precaution the outputs of the scientists on the ice must be accompanied by armed guards.

Two polar bears outside the Polarstern. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

One of the experiments involves the immersion at a depth of over 4,200 meters of a CTD probe, that is a device to measure the electrical conductivity, the pressure and the temperature of the water. It is a structure with a series of cylinders that collect water samples at various depths, allowing them to be analyzed later.

A hole dug in the ice for a CTD probe, a device used in the analysis of the physical and chemical properties of ocean waters. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Once all the operations are completed, the area covered by the scientific stations around the Polarstern will have an extension of about 100 square kilometers. To move from one to the other, scientists use wooden sledges pulled by snowmobiles.

Two crew members extract an electric cable left under the ice. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Without internet and without pubs in the immediate vicinity, the ship's crew must use more traditional methods to pass the time: the journalist of NPR Ravenna Koening said he taught the crew and scientists a card game learned in Alaska, called Snerts, which quickly became very popular. Some nights they played there until two, he wrote on Twitter. The ship, which is spread over seven levels, is also equipped with a ping pong room and a sauna. The crew usually wakes up at 7am, has breakfast at 7.30am, eats at 11.30am, has tea at 3pm and dinner at 7.30pm.

If the Polarstern's goal was to run aground on the ice, the Akademik Fedorov's concern was the opposite: the ship, which unlike the Polarstern is not technically an icebreaker, had to move instead with a certain regularity to avoid being trapped. After witnessing the preparation of scientific stations around Polarstern, Akademik Fedorov returned to Norway.

(Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Pierre Priou)

Mosaic is the most ambitious scientific mission ever organized to study in the Arctic, and its discoveries and the data it will collect will be fundamental to develop more accurate climate models that take into account aspects that are often not considered when talking about the North Pole. For one thing, in the Arctic in the summer there are formed species of pools on the surface of the ice, which increase the pressure on the glacial platforms and change its albedo, that is the amount of light – and consequently the heat – that holds back.

But more generally, the data collected by Mosaic will be important because they will cover a full year of observations, thus recording the changes linked to the seasons, impossible to collect from missions that last only a few weeks. The effects of global warming on the Arctic are in fact among the most worrying of the climate crisis: the average temperatures of the region are increasing at twice the speed of those of the rest of the planet, but building precise models on the future of the poles is difficult for the few data available.

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