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21 February 2017

Ambitious Research Expedition Plans to Intentionally Trap Vessel in Arctic Ice

Germany's research vessel Polarstern   - Img: AWI 
Ships traversing the Arctic region generally put a lot of effort into avoiding becoming encased in the ice; in fact, nations around the world have entire fleets of icebreaker ships designed specifically to free those unfortunate vessels that do find themselves stuck. It may come as something of a surprise then, to hear that a team of scientists from 50 of the world’s foremost research institutions are planning to sail the German icebreaker Polarstern into the North Pole in order to intentionally trap it in the Arctic ice.

The plan is then for the icebreaker to travel 2,500km across the North Pole, carried along by the flow of the ice itself, in order to collect climate data that has for so long proven largely inaccessible due to the harsh nature of the Arctic winter.

The expedition takes inspiration from that of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, undertaken in 1893. He too had hoped that by encasing his ship in the ice he would then be carried effortlessly to the North Pole. Nansen’s expedition didn’t quite go to plan however, as he veered wildly off course and was forced to abandon the mission. His ship eventually broke out of the ice near Greenland, which at least proved him correct in his assertion that the ice was drifting gradually southwards.

The expedition, named MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate), will set sail in 2019 and will also include the installation of temporary research stations on the surrounding ice. The expedition is being touted as the largest research project to ever take place in the Arctic, as the ship along with its various satellite stations will be capable of carrying out more than 100 separate experiments simultaneously. A bold undertaking to say the least.

Expedition co-leader Prof Markus Rex, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, shared some extra details concerning the plan for the project. He says, “The plan is to travel in summer when sea ice is thin and sea extent is much smaller.

“We can travel along the Siberian coast and then make our way with our ice-breaker to the Siberian sector of the Arctic. Then we just stop the engines and drift with the sea ice.

“As the season proceeds the sea ice will grow and by late November we'll sit in solid sea ice. It will get colder; the ice will grow in extent and thickness. By then we'll have set up a network of stations on the ice, some close and some 20 or 30 km away.

“We'll have a network of stations on the ice with a central observatory. The whole thing will drift across the Arctic. During winter it will be completely dark and we won't be able to move. We'll just passively drift across the polar cap until we reach the Fram Strait.”
An illustration of the intended route for the Polarstern icebreaker to take through the Arctic ice   - Img: MOSAiC
It is widely known that weather conditions in the Arctic can have a substantial effect on those around the globe, so the data gleaned from this expedition will be invaluable to forecasters, and in the battle to understand and prevent global warming. We can only hope that it doesn’t become a case of too little, too late.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.