After More Than a Year on the Ice, the Biggest Arctic Research Mission Is Complete

The Polarstern amidst Arctic sea ice.

The Polarstern amidst Arctic sea ice.
Photo: NOAA, University of Colorado, Boulder, and MOSAiC

The largest Arctic research campaign in history just came to a close. For more than a year, a rotating group of roughly 500 scientists and staffers have been traveling the region on a research vessel called the Polarstern as part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition, or MOSAiC.

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The expedition began last September, when a team packed the ship with 1 million pounds of equipment and set off from Norway toward the North Pole. They then attached the vessel to an ice floe north of Siberia and let it carry them westward for thousands of miles. This allowed the multidisciplinary group of researchers to closely observe the Arctic’s air, ice, and ecosystems to learn more about them and their bearing on our changing climate.

The team studied everything from zooplankton and polar bears to sea ice and wind patterns. Along the way, they encountered many difficulties. At several points, for instance, the ice broke up more than they expected it would and forced them to change their planned path. They also saw dangerous storms, which in more than one case damaged their equipment. At one point, an Arctic fox chewed through data cables—seriously. And of course, there was the covid-19 pandemic, which forced them to pause the expedition for three weeks after a crew member getting ready to deploy to the vessel tested positive, delaying some of their research.

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Illustration for article titled After More Than a Year on the Ice, the Biggest Arctic Research Mission Is Complete

Photo: Lianna Nixon, CIRES/University of Colorado, Boulder

The unique nature of the science and circumstances of the pandemic wasn’t the only time the expedition made news; its controversial, sexist dress code prohibiting women from wearing tight clothes also garnered backlash. Despite these challenges, the scientists arrived back on cozier shores with treasure troves of data.

“Direct observations and physical samples collected during the MOSAiC expedition represent a quantum leap in our understanding of natural processes and cycles in the central Arctic Ocean across all seasons,” Frank Rack, the National Science Foundation’s Arctic research support and logistics manager for the trip, said on a press call.

The data could greatly improve scientists’ understanding the ways aerosols, clouds, precipitation, and sea ice interact, and improve climate models and forecasts about the trajectory of global warming. That’s particularly true because they were able to obtain rare winter data, which is hard to do since temperatures in the Arctic are so extreme and access is all but impossible unless you’re already locked in the ice.

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The Arctic is warming over twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which can be seen by the recent record-setting heat waves and fires in Siberia and the recent near record-low summer sea ice extent seen throughout the region.

These changes are wreaking havoc on animal populations in the area. They could also harm local Indigenous communities, and communities around the world. Changes in sea ice can disturb the oceans’ patterns of circulation and impact the global climate. Sea ice extent also affects weather patterns around the world.

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“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Robin Webb, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Physical Sciences Laboratory director, who spent months on the ship, told reporters.

The researchers’ time at sea was in no way easy, but in some ways, it’s now that the hard work will begin, because all of this data will now have to be analyzed. Some of it is set to be presented at the American Geophysical Union’s massive December conference, while other parts are already slated to be published in leading journals like Nature. And that’s far from all we should expect to see from all that was collected on the MOSAiC mission. Their findings will inform many kinds of research for years to come.

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