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

Into the Polar Night

CU Boulder releases a 30-minute planetarium dome show about the first months of an epic scientific expedition to the Arctic

The Arctic sea ice groans and creaks as a massive icebreaker slowly churns through. Later, scientists on an ice floe call out to each other in the dark. A chainsaw buzzes as someone cuts through the ice, exposing open ocean below.  

Viewers from Baltimore to Berlin can now step out onto an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and watch and listen as scientists race the fading light to set up one of the most ambitious international climate collaborations ever, MOSAiC. 

The Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate launched in September 2019. Led by the German Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), the mission froze an icebreaker into the Central Arctic Ocean, to better understand the remote region and the role it plays in global climate and weather patterns.

Now, a 360-degree planetarium dome show, Into the Polar Night, is available free for institutions around the world. Individual users can watch a VR version on YouTube or with virtual reality viewers. The show captures the first three months of the yearlong expedition, as darkness descends, storms swirl, and scientists work to gather data from this harsh and unforgiving environment. 

“In part, it’s a story about numbers, where numbers come from, their history...” said lead producer and creative director Amy Richman. Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, AWI, CIRES and Fiske Planetarium, Richman traveled aboard the mission from September to January, collecting never-before-seen imagery from research in the far north. 

“NSF is pleased to have supported this wonderful glimpse into the unusual circumstances and critical research contributions of the MOASAiC program.” said Kelly Falker, director of the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs. “The MOSAiC Expedition is one the most ambitious international Arctic field missions that NSF has ever funded. Its participants have truly ventured ‘into the unknown,’ and the long-standing observational gaps they are filling promise major advances in our ability to understand the current state and likely future trajectory of the Arctic.”

“We live in an age where numbers are sometimes dismissed, and facts are, too,” Richman said. “I spent a lot of time learning about what it takes to get Arctic climate system numbers, how much physical effort it takes to gather them.” 

Richman narrates the show herself, taking viewers on her own journey as she interviews the scientists studying the Arctic atmosphere, sea ice and ocean, and all the connections among them. 

“I wanted the audience to feel involved, fully immersed, in that they mattered to the story, mattered to the Arctic,” Richman said. 

Richman completed her Masters in Fine Arts at CU Boulder just before joining the MOSAiC expedition, and she said she hopes she manages to inspire a feeling of surprise, “joyful surprise,” in her viewers. “That feeling of surprise is something I always love from artwork.” 

Maybe, she said, that surprise could come from seeing the Arctic featured in a dome show, where viewers normally contemplate the night sky or other celestial objects. “Maybe we’re challenging the perception of what a planetarium normally is,” she said. 

Researchers prepare to stabilize a small ice-based tower with guy wires in January, as part of the international  MOSAiC mission. A new planetarium show, Into the Polar Night, features the first three months of the mission in the Central Arctic Ocean. Photo: Amy Richman, CIRES  and CU Boulder.

“We’re extremely excited to share this immersive fulldome piece with the world,” said John Keller, Director of Fiske Planetarium on the CU Boulder campus. “The MOSAIC mission is a once-in-a-lifetime expedition, and the film transports audiences to this extraordinary Arctic environment where researchers are asking challenging, essential questions to better understand the interconnectivity of planetary processes.” 

CU Boulder’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Terri Fiez has followed the mission from the start in September. ”We’re proud that our researchers have been able to contribute so significantly to the MOSAiC mission, which is the latest in a long line of climate science achievements for CU Boulder,” she said. “And along with the scientific knowledge the team has gathered, we’re delighted the broader public will be able to immerse themselves in the mission through opportunities like this film.”  


CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

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