Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Fresh Food and Faces in the Distant Arctic Ocean


After weeks of churning slowly through sea ice in the remote Arctic Ocean, a Russian icebreaker carrying scientists, crew and new equipment has reached the German RV Polarstern, which is frozen into drifting sea ice about 100 miles from the geographic North Pole. During the next few days, people will carefully ferry tons of cargo between the two ships and dozens of scientists and crew will switch cabins, some bound for home after months on dark ice, others thrilled to begin a two-month stint serving science on the international Arctic climate mission. 

“I am most excited to just spend every day, whenever the weather is favorable, out on the sea ice, conducting our science. Of course I am excited about the science itself, but I am most excited about the fact that we get to do this in such an incredible environment,” said University of Colorado Boulder Ph.D. student Gina Jozef. Jozef is part of a National Science Foundation-funded team making atmospheric measurements over the Arctic Ocean, by drone. 

On the MOSAiC expedition, experts from 20 nations are studying the Arctic climate system for an entire year (September 2019-October 2020). MOSAiC science emphasizes the connections among the ocean, ice and atmosphere, and the German Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) coordinates the mission.

U.S. participation is primarily supported by NSF, which is contributing roughly $24 million to the project, making among the largest Arctic research initiatives the agency has ever mounted. The Department of Energy is also highly invested in the mission, funding nearly $10 million and providing the largest suite of atmospheric instruments. 

“We’ve known from the beginning this would be a challenging campaign,” says Sally McFarlane, Department of Energy program manager for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility. “Much about this campaign is a first, such as this exchange of staff and resources, as well as the valuable data that we are collecting. The scientists and staff are to be commended for the creativity they are demonstrating in coming up with solutions that are keeping people and equipment safe in this extremely remote region.”

The current exchange of people and scientific equipment is taking place a few weeks later than many had tentatively planned for, because the resupply ship could move only slowly through the thick Arctic sea ice. Mission leaders have emphasized from the beginning that since the mission involves so many firsts, all schedules should be considered flexible.

Indeed, there were two new records this week in the history of polar research, AWI noted: On February 24, Polarstern’s ice drift took her to  88°36’ North, the farthest north a ship has ventured during Arctic winter. And on February 26, the Russian Kapitan Dranitsyn reached 88°28’ North, the farthest north a ship has traveled under her own power so early in the year.

Sea ice conditions remain significantly thinner than the long-term average, said Melinda Webster, a University of Alaska Fairbanks sea ice scientist who will work aboard the Polarstern for a few months later this year, funded by NSF. 

“The Arctic average sea ice thickness used to be 3.0 m; now it's closer to 1.5 m,” she said. 

Still, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 58C (-72F) including wind chill, the open ocean track of the Kapitan Dranitsyn has frozen solid already, and the exchange of people and equipment is progressing extremely carefully, mostly by snowmobile and sled. Ship cranes work only slowly in such conditions, and fresh produce must be transported in heated containers across the roughly one-half mile between the ships. 

Monday, Jozef and her advisor, CIRES Fellow and CU Boulder professor John Cassano ventured onto the ice for a tour of “Met City,” the meteorological camp on the central ice floe supporting the mission. The two scouted out possible takeoff and landing areas for the drones they’ll be flying to collect detailed data on the structure of the Arctic atmosphere.

Jozef and Cassano are among nearly two dozen scientists and staff from CU Boulder who will work aboard the Polarstern at some point during the course of the year. 

Currently, CU Boulder's Michael Gallagher, Julienne Stroeve, and Dean Howard are aboard (from CIRES/NOAA, NSIDC and INSTAAR, respectively) as is NOAA’s Taneil Uttal. These scientists will begin the journey home in the next couple of days. Staying aboard Polarstern are Cassano and Jozef as well as CIRES's Ludovic Bariteau (also affiliated with NOAA) and NOAA's Chris Cox. 

DOE ARM staff members Tercio Silva, Steele Griffiths, and Wessley King will also be heading home soon, leaving Paul Ortega, John Bilberry, and Dean Greenamyer to continue the atmospheric measurements on board.

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More from the Alfred Wegener Institute

For days, fast sea ice had slowed the progress of the resupply icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn; bound for the North Pole, her mission was to support the second exchange of researchers and crew in the MOSAiC expedition. Nevertheless, she steadily drew closer to her destination, and finally, at 12:20 pm (CET) on Friday, 28 February, dropped anchor 970 metres from Polarstern, moored to the same floe. While the handover is in full swing on the MOSAiC floe, in Russia another icebreaker will soon leave port in order to supply Kapitan Dranitsyn with additional fuel on her return trip.

This past week there were not one, but two new records in the history of polar research, as the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute has reported: on 24 February Polarstern’s drift took her to 88°36’ North, just 156 kilometres from the North Pole. Never before had a ship ventured so far north during the Arctic winter. And two days later, the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, shortly before her rendezvous with Polarstern at 88°28’ North, reached the northernmost position on her mission, marking the first time a ship had made it so far north under her own power, so early in the year.

“These records represent milestones in the MOSAiC expedition. They demonstrate the success of the logistical concept, and provide the basis for the unprecedented scientific data that is being gathered during the expedition,” says Prof Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Potsdam, Leader of the MOSAiC expedition. “My hat goes off to Captain Alexandr Erpulev for successfully navigating the icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn through the Arctic winter and virtually to the North Pole,” adds Polarstern Captain Stefan Schwarze, underscoring this nautical achievement. “Given the current sea-ice situation, the delay is absolutely in keeping with what had to be expected,” Rex emphasises. Following the first few months of the expedition, Rex returned from the Arctic on board Kapitan Dranitsyn and will return to Polarstern in April.

Together with the Logistics Division of the Alfred Wegener Institute, he’s spent the past several days working out how to provide the resupply icebreaker with additional fuel. Since the fast sea ice forced Kapitan Dranitsyn to consume more fuel than originally planned, the icebreaker Admiral Makarov is expected to depart from Murmansk on 3 March and follow an intercept course with Kapitan Dranitsyn, so as to refuel the latter in the Arctic sea ice.

  • MOSAiC Twitter: @MOSAiCArctic
  • MOSAiC on Instagram: @mosaic_expedition
  • MOSAiC online:  www.mosaic-expedition.org
  • MOSAiC web app: www.follow.mosaic-expedition.org
  • Images: https://www.awi.de/en/about-us/service/press.html

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.