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Understanding the warming Arctic

German research icebreaker sets sail for largest polar expedition in history

Photo courtesy of Hannes Grobe (Alfred Wegener Institute)

by Anton Kuech

“The Arctic is currently warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, but the climate models are highly uncertain as to how the temperature trends would develop in the coming decades”

The German Research Vessel Polarstern departed for the Arctic on Sunday, the 22nd of September, for the biggest ever polar expedition: To spend 390 days drifting through the Arctic ocean. Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, this enormous expedition is expected to contribute to the understanding of the Arctic climate system. The Arctic is known as a “hotspot” for global climate change, with warming rates over twice the global average and studies predicting a summer ice free Arctic ocean within the 21st century. To predict Arctic climate processes and argue for sensible policy making for mitigation options, a robust understanding of the entire Arctic area is of essence. Currently, observations in the central Arctic are lacking, as research icebreakers are not able to penetrate the thick Arctic winter ice.


The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition will be locked in the heart of the Arctic to investigate the changing climate system year-around. Focus areas of sea ice & snow will be to investigate the formation and deformation of sea ice and the transport and uptake of heat between the sea-ice surface and bottom. In addition, ocean circulation in the upper and deeper layers, as well as atmospheric measurements of cloud formations, precipitation and aerosols, will be taken.


The expedition will require significant logistical assistance throughout the time the Polarstern is locked in the heart of the Arctic. 4 icebreakers from China, Russia and Sweden will supply the Polarstern with necessary food and help with scientists’ rotations and a range of supply planes will have to land on a landing strip carved out of the sea ice. Once frozen into the Arctic, a wide range of infrastructure will be set up on the ice floe, including a sea ice laboratory and a supply plan runway.


The £120 million expedition is the largest of its kind, incorporating the expertise of over 600 scientists that will be on board and exchanged in phases. “The Arctic is currently warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, but the climate models are highly uncertain as to how the temperature trends would develop in the coming decades,” the expedition leader Professor Markus Rex explained. He added, “we don't have any robust climate predictions for the Arctic and the reason is we don't understand the processes there very well. That's because we were never able to observe them year round and certainly not in winter when the ice is at its thickest and we can't break it with our research vessels”.

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