Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Friday, September 20, 2019

Epic Climate Science Mission Begins

CU Boulder researchers, >500 international colleagues launch yearlong journey to study Arctic climate

This is a joint news story from ​NSF, DOE and CIRES at the University of Colorado Boulder.

TROMSØ, NORWAY—The German icebreaker Polarstern sails north from Tromsø, Norway, Friday evening with dozens of scientists from around the world, all determined to better understand how the Arctic climate system is changing, and what it means for all of us. 

“Arctic sea ice is melting,” said CIRES researcher Matthew Shupe, who began planning the mission more than a decade ago. “It’s one of the fastest changing environments on the planet, and we need to understand that. We need to understand energy budgets in the region, the clouds, the ocean…how the entire system is changing as our earth system is changing.” 

Led by the German Alfred Wegener Institute, the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) involves hundreds of researchers from 19 countries. There are oceanographers and ecologists, physicists, meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, and other experts who study the invisible flows of energy and gases between ocean and sea ice, sea ice and atmosphere. 

The National Science Foundation, through its Office of Polar Programs (OPP), is the largest funder of the U.S. scientific effort, and the Department of Energy, through its Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program, was the first agency, internationally, to commit to supporting any MOSAiC project.

Image removed.CIRES researcher Matthew Shupe talks with Thomas Krumpen, from the Alfred Wegener Institute on Thursday, as the MOSAiC mission prepares for launch. The German icebreaker Polarstern (which will be frozen into ice for 13 months) is in back left. From the Russian Fedorov, at right, scientists will head out onto nearby ice floes, to install a "distributed network" of instruments to help them understand the rapidly changing Arctic climate. Fedorov will return to Norway in October, while Polarstern will remain frozen in the ice until next fall.  Photo: Sara Morris/CIRES

“MOSAiC’s drift across the Arctic Ocean is one of the most ambitious single Arctic research expeditions that NSF has ever supported,” said Kelly K. Falkner, head of OPP. “It fulfills critical objectives of NSF’s “Navigating the New Arctic” focus by filling key observational gaps.”

She added that “there is no doubt that MOSAiC will open a new chapter in our ability to understand the changes underway in the Arctic and to predict future trends.”

NSF is supporting the work of dozens of researchers from universities and research institutions throughout the United States, including CIRES and the broader University of Colorado Boulder. 

The Department of Energy is supporting one of the most extensive arrays of climate instruments ever deployed, with more than 50 instruments in 6 seatainers on the ship, and more that will be set up on ice.

The next  year of data collection will be a game-changer,” said DOE’s Gary Geernaert. “The new observations that will be collected over the Arctic during the next year will reveal new insights on how the Arctic works and how to predict changes in the future. This would not have been possible without international partnerships and collaboration.” 

AWI’s ship, the Polarstern sets off to find sea ice at a time when the Arctic sea ice extent is significantly lower than the long-term average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, part of CIRES at CU Boulder. This could change how the researchers and ship’s crew decide where to settle her in for the winter. 

The mission’s design uses the pioneering drift technique of a late 1800s voyage by Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen, who sailed the wooden Fram into Arctic sea ice and froze in, hoping ice drift would carry the ship across the North Pole. The ice did not cooperate during the 1893-1896 mission, but MOSAiC relies on Nansen’s confirmation that sea ice does, indeed, drift over time across the Arctic Ocean. 

“The Arctic … is the weather kitchen for our weather in North America, Europe, and Asia,” said AWI’s Markus Rex, head of MOSAiC. “Extreme weather conditions like outbreaks of cold Arctic air here in winter, or heat waves in summer are linked to the changes in the Arctic. At the same time, the uncertainties in our climate models are nowhere bigger than in the Arctic. There aren’t any reliable prognoses of how the Arctic climate will develop further or what that will mean for our weather. Our mission is to change that.” 

The ship’s 13-month journey is likely to be epic, by any number of measures: 

  • There will be months when the sun doesn’t rise, and months when it never sets
  • In winter, temperatures may plummet lower than -40 F (-40C)
  • Storms will pass through, with driving winds and blizzard conditions that prevent work on the ice.
  • The ship could drift with the ice as many as 1,500 miles, and although modelers have predicted the most likely path, the team will be at the whim of the drifting ice. 
  • Scientists working on the ice will need polar bear guards, to scare away the potentially dangerous creatures 
  • The entire effort is costing more than $150 million, with NSF contributing about $27 million and DOE nearly $10 million. 
  • Dozens of scientists will be aboard the ship for months at a time, with very limited ability to communicate with families and no option to disembark, except for medical emergencies.

Follow MOSAiC on Twitter (@MOSAiCArctic) and Instagram (@mosaic_expedition) and search for more information from partner institutions using the hashtags #MOSAiCexpedition, #Arctic and #icedrift. Online: and (focused on CU Boulder and NOAA efforts). Download the MOSAiC web app to follow Polarstern’s drift route: