Mosaic vessel
The MOSAiC ice camp and RV Polarstern. (Photo credit: Stefan Hendricks)

While much of the world was locked down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, an international team of researchers working on the MOSAiC expedition was trapped for about two months in the Arctic onboard the ice-locked Polarstern icebreaker.

Two German research vessels – RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian – in mid-May began heading toward Svalbard, where they are to rendezvous with the Polarstern in a fjord, exchange personnel, and resupply the icebreaker. The overdue researchers are to board the two research vessels to return to Germany and then head home. Some 90 other researchers – after more than two weeks quarantining and testing for the virus in Bremerhaven, Germany – are to take up life aboard the icebreaker to continue the expedition.

MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) was in the planning stages for more than a decade, and organizers and participants say they are relieved the project can proceed notwithstanding the pandemic. The expedition involves locking a ship into Arctic ice for over a year and taking measurements as it drifts with the changing ice. Seen as the most ambitious Arctic research project of its kind, MOSAiC involves participants from 20 nations, including the U.S. It is crucial to understanding the rapidly changing Arctic, as what happens in the Arctic affects the rest of the world.

Lots of early contingency plans … but not for a pandemic

Before the expedition, organizers had come up with contingency plans for all sorts of emergencies – including the ship’s destruction by fire – but they did not have a plan specifically for a global pandemic. However, scientists who conduct research in the most remote and extreme corners of the Earth often need to be resourceful, and the team quickly set about making alternative plans.

It can take years to reserve one of the relatively few and in-demand suitable research vessels, but when a different set of researchers’ plans to use the RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian were canceled, the MOSAiC team arranged to use both to swap personnel and resupply the Polarstern.

With one leg removed from the originally planned voyage – leaving it with five legs – the expedition is expected to continue until October as originally scheduled. One more exchange of crew members is planned, probably for August.

Matthew Shupe, a senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, had been on the project’s first leg. That ran from September 2019 to early January 2020, and Shupe was working on experiments involving the atmosphere and sea ice. He originally had not been scheduled to return for MOSAiC’s final leg until late July. Instead, he found himself packing his bags in April – with just two weeks’ notice – to get back to the ice.

Timing concern: Will the researchers witness, record start of ice melt?

A big question on expedition members’ minds involves the ice. Will it break up while the Polarstern researchers are away? Or will they be able to witness and record the beginning of the melt?

“It’s anybody’s guess,” Shupe said in a recent Zoom interview, as he awaited a return to the research vessel. “If we knew the answer to that, then we wouldn’t even have to be there because these are the kinds of things that we’re trying to understand and learn so that we can forecast and predict the sea ice system out there.”

When the Polarstern was freed from the ice in May, researchers left instruments to collect some data while they are gone, including a semi-autonomous meteorological sled station and a number of buoys for taking various measurements. Originally, the team had planned to leave a meteorological tower on the ice, but last-minute ice conditions and cracking led them to bring it on board the ship instead.

In ‘new Arctic,’ says researcher Shupe, ice dynamics ‘right now are really cool.’

Experiments requiring researchers’ physical presence – including those using tethered balloons, remote operated vehicles diving into the ocean, and the sampling of snow, water, and ice – can’t be conducted for another few weeks. However, the team expects to attempt to use the Polarstern’s sophisticated instruments to collect data as the ship transits to and from Svalbard.

“We are going to try to operate those from the ship as it’s moving,” Shupe said in a mid-May interview before heading out for his second stint on the Polarstern. “So we’re actually going to get this transect out to the ice edge and back, which is some bonus science.”

Once the Polarstern returns with fresh personnel and supplies, it is to again settle in the spot where it was locked in the ice. However, if that location proves unsuitable, the ship likely will move on to a new spot.

An additional challenge researchers will face stems from the cancelation of a series of scientific flights. The flights had been scheduled to collect surface and atmospheric data between Svalbard and the Polarstern’s ice-bound Arctic location. After a member of the flight team – who was not on the ice at the time – was diagnosed with COVID-19, 20 members of the team were quarantined. That situation, combined with logistical issues, led to cancelation of several of the flights. Another set of scientific flights is scheduled for later in the summer.

Challenges of Arctic research

While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique spectrum of obstacles, spending a year locked into Arctic sea ice comes with its own inherent hurdles, from ice movement to polar bears.

“It continues to be a huge challenge out there totally independent of the virus situation,” according to Shupe. “MOSAiC is challenged by just the conditions.”

Shifting ice and pressure ridges have moved research stations and battered equipment. In November 2019, a storm repositioned the “Met City” meteorological station several hundred meters from its previous location, which Shupe says is just part of normal ice movement and exactly the type of data they wish to collect. That November storm also led to a brief power interruption, so generators were hooked up while the power line to Met City was repaired. The shifting ice also mangled some instruments. “One of my stations out there was just entirely crushed by this ridge of ice and totally demolished,” Shupe says.

That ice movement keeps researchers on their toes: One day, a research station might be accessible by foot or snowmobile, the next day reachable only by helicopter given cracking ice conditions. Shupe recounts how he once had a crack form right underneath his feet. He says it formed slowly, and with all team members wearing flotation devices, no one was endangered.

Despite the challenging conditions, Shupe says he is excited to collect valuable data.

Dealing with weather challenges, with an eye out for polar bears

“The dynamics of the ice right now are really cool,” Shupe says. “This is the new Arctic. This is the challenge of the new Arctic. And in spite of losing some measurements right now, we’re also getting measurements in this really emergent state of the Arctic system with lots of cracks … It’s a really fascinating time and a hugely challenging time.”

Jessie Creamean, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, was also on the first leg of MOSAiC. She and colleagues would work 12 or more hours a day, collecting samples – including ice cores and water from thousands of meters below the sea. Their days were spent processing and analyzing those samples, fine-tuning instruments, and conferring with other researchers. A frequent challenge involved weather: “The weather can cause poor visibility,” Creamean said. “The temperatures can be so cold sometimes that you can’t operate certain types of equipment.”

Polar bears add yet another hazard to Arctic research. The MOSAiC researchers have teammates working as bear guards out on the ice and using infrared technology from the ship’s bridge to spot bears. When they see a bear, researchers quickly return to the ship and the bear guards work to deter the animals with flares, flash bangs, and snow machines, and sometimes with a helicopter. Curious bears also investigate equipment out on the ice. The researchers lost one remote research station when a bear swiped at the instruments, but they patched it up with a few spare parts.

Melting and cracking ice could create additional challenges and hamper the team’s efforts to collect all the measurements they would like. In those cases, they improvise and use boats, bridges, and other equipment as needed.

Despite all the challenges, the MOSAiC team has already collected a wealth of valuable data to be used by scientists for decades to come.

“I think we’re going to get most of what we wanted to get out of this in spite of the additional challenges of the virus,” Shupe says.

Also see: Key readings about MOSAiC, an Arctic laboratory locked in ice

Kristen Pope

Kristen Pope

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about climate change, ecology, wildlife, conservation, and many other topics for a wide variety of publications. She has a masters degree...