Scientists on Arctic Expedition Choose Ice Floe That’ll Be Home for a Year
Two weeks after leaving northern Norway for the Central Arctic, and with the polar darkness settling in, an icebreaker carrying climate researchers settled next to an ice floe on Friday, putting itself at the mercy of the drifting ice for a planned yearlong expedition to better understand the changing Arctic climate.
Scientists on the 400-foot ship, Polarstern, and an accompanying Russian icebreaker selected the ice floe, which is roughly in the shape of an oval a mile and a half wide by a little more than two miles long, on Thursday.
“We’ve found our home for the months to come,” Markus Rex, an atmospheric physicist and the expedition’s leader, said in a statement issued by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.
Open water will rapidly freeze around the ship, locking it in place as it travels with a current called the transpolar drift. The floe’s location, in the northern Laptev Sea about 350 miles from the North Pole, gives the researchers what they say is their best chance of completing the expedition, by drifting past the pole and then south to the Fram Strait east of Greenland next fall.
If all goes as planned, some 300 scientists will be aboard the Polarstern in a series of two-month shifts, coming and going with the help of other icebreakers and, when the ice gets too thick in midwinter, airplanes that will land on an ice runway built on the floe.
The Arctic is warming more rapidly than other parts of the world. Sea ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean has shrunk and the ice has become thinner over recent decades. But understanding the dynamic interactions of the elements that affect the climate in the Central Arctic has been hampered by the difficulty of conducting research there, especially in winter. Mosaic is the most ambitious Arctic science expedition ever attempted.
The ice floe was selected over 15 others after several days of poring over satellite images and reconnaissance flights by helicopter. Researchers also drilled into the ice and took measurements using an instrument towed by a snowmobile to map the floe’s thickness. It is up to two meters thick, or about six and a half feet, in parts, the institute said.
That thickness is critical as the researchers will set up heavy equipment next to the ship, which will act as a base camp for scientific observations over the year. If the ice were too thin or the floe more irregularly shaped, there would be more risk of it breaking up prematurely. While the researchers have contingency plans, an early breakup would greatly affect the research program.
In the statement, Dr. Rex said the floe was characterized by “an unusually stable area which we are confident can serve as a good basis and point of departure for establishing a complex research camp.”
While the camp is being established around Polarstern, scientists and technicians aboard the Russian icebreaker, the Akademik Fedorov, will set up autonomous observing stations around it, some of which will be up to 30 miles away. The Russian ship will then set sail to return to Tromso, Norway, where the expedition began, arriving at the end of the month.