Das deutsche Forschungsschiff Polarstern in der zentralen Arktis

The German research vessel Polarstern in the central Arctic. It will drift with the ice during the Arctic winter. Mario Hoppmann, Alfred Wegener Institute

NARRAGANSETT — Few regions on Earth have warmed as much as the Arctic over recent decades, but because of its near inaccessibility in winter, scientists lack year-round observations from the area. To gain new insights from this epicenter of global warming, four University of Rhode Island scientists from the Graduate School of Oceanography will soon join the largest Arctic science expedition in history.

It's called the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. The $150 million expedition will have 600 participants from 19 countries. At the center of the expedition is the research icebreaker Polarstern.

Rather than navigate through the treacherous sea ice, the German icebreaker will let itself be trapped in the ice for 13 months. Once frozen in the Central Arctic, the ship will drift with the ice at an average speed of 4½ miles) per day. Researchers on board will gather data on the interactions between the atmosphere, the ocean, and sea ice, as well as on the ecosystem.

The ship and its team will be supplied by a fleet of four icebreakers, helicopters and aircraft.

URI Professor Brice Loose, marine research scientist Robert Campbell, postdoctoral fellow Alessandra D'Angelo, and marine research specialist Cecilia Gelfman will join the expedition at various times throughout the coming year.

Campbell and Gelfman will sample and study zooplankton from below the ice to better understand how they survive. The team will create an energy budget based on the reproductive, growth and respiration rates of the organisms to understand the amount of microscopic plants and ice algae they use.

Research scientists on the Polarstern have agreed to organize as a collective, focusing 30% of their time to their own research with the remainder devoted to the overall team. Those tasks will include collecting and analyzing ice cores and water samples.

"Given the complexity and the scale of the expedition," Loose said, “it’s clear that the only way to extend all of these measurements for a full year is to work together with other investigators."

Loose and D’Angelo, who went to the Arctic as part of this summer’s Northwest Passage Project, will continue their research into the release of ocean methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in the Arctic.

“There’s quite a bit of seabed methane being liberated from the Arctic,” Loose said. “And there seems to be a mismatch between what’s released from the seabed and what escapes into the atmosphere. If the initial releases of methane are modest and bacteria use enough of it for food, they may serve to offset the amount of the greenhouse gas that escapes to the atmosphere.”

Loose and Campbell will join the expedition for its second leg, starting in late November, while D’Angelo and Gelfman will join for the third and fourth legs. While each leg is approximately two months, the logistics of getting to and from the ship during the winter are likely to add an additional month of travel time.

Participants underwent extensive training. Campbell, Gelfman and their team took survival and safety training, and learned how to sample ice, drive snowmobiles and handle a firearm. “If you’re going to be out on the ice somebody has to have a gun,” Campbell said. “They can’t participate in the science — their job is to watch for polar bears.”

In 1997, Campbell spent months aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Des Groseilliers which, like the Polarstern, was purposefully frozen in the pack ice, although much farther south from the North Pole, as part of the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean study. The MOSAiC planners used lessons learned from previous ice campsas they designed the expedition. “At one point the ice actually split in half, and some of the labs on the ice were destroyed,” he recalled.

By the time the Polarsten completes its drift in September 2020, the multidisciplinary collection of scientists hope to have gathered a year’s-worth of new observations that will enhance future climate change projections for the Arctic.

The MOSAiC project was designed by an international consortium of polar research institutions, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

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