Largest Arctic Expedition Ever Comes to a Close

The German Research Vessel Polarstern came back into port after more than a year floating amid the diminishing Arctic sea ice

Research Vessel Polarstern in the Arctic Ocean
The German Research Vessel Polarstern conducting research near to the North Pole. Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Steffen Graupner

This past Monday, the German reseach vessel Polarstern came back into port after the largest Arctic science expedition ever, reports Henry Fountain for the New York Times.

Polarstern spent more than a year in the frozen north with its engines switched off, drifting with the ice floe across the Arctic as its crew collected more than 150 terabytes of data and 1,000 ice samples, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

All those samples and data will take more than two years to completely analyze, but Markus Rex, the expedition leader, tells AFP the team’s initial assessment of the Arctic environment is grim.

"We witnessed how the Arctic Ocean is dying," Rex tells AFP. "We saw this process right outside our windows, or when we walked on the brittle ice."

At a press event on Monday in Bremerhaven, Germany, the Polarstern’s home port, Rex said the entire Arctic region is at risk. “We were able to witness how the ice disappears and in areas where there should have been ice that was many meters thick, and even at the North Pole—that ice was gone," he said.

RV Polarstern arriving in Bremerhaven
The RV Polarstern arriving in Bremerhaven, Germany at the end of its expedition. Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Joachim Hofmann

Rex and the other scientists on board observed the second lowest sea ice extent ever recorded in the Arctic, reports Jonathan Amos for BBC News. During the summer, floating ice retreated to cover an area of just 1.44 million square miles, a minimum second only to the 1.32-million-square-mile extent recorded in 2012. Per BBC News, the Arctic sea ice cover during the month of September is declining at a rate of around 13 percent per decade.

The low sea ice extent was partly driven by unusually warm air temperatures that are becoming less and less unusual as human greenhouse gas emissions continue to heat up the planet. In early September, air temperatures in north-central Siberia were nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, reports Alexandra Witze for Nature. When this air drifted north, roughly 30,000 square miles of sea ice melted each day for six days beginning on August 31, a new record for ice loss for that time of year, according to Nature.

Polarstern initially set sail from Norway some 13 months ago, and carried a rotating group of around 100 scientists, technicians and crew from 20 countries, per the Times. The ship’s captain intentionally allowed the ship to freeze in place amid the floes of sea ice about 350 miles from the North Pole. The expedition ran into expected challenges such as roving polar bears and harsh weather, and the unexpected global tragedy of 2020: a pandemic that disrupted its carefully planned logistics.

But the expedition’s issues were not limited to logistics. E&E News reporter Chelsea Harvey was present for six weeks of the expedition and wrote about instances of sexual harassment aimed at women on board a Russian support ship, as well as a sexist dress code that was imposed in response to that harassment.

The $177 million expedition, known by the acronym MOSAiC, collected data on the Arctic ocean, ice, clouds, storms and ecosystems which will help improve models of climate change’s progression and provide fodder for addressing countless other scientific inquiries, reports Frank Jordans for the Associated Press (AP).

“This is an extremely exciting time to get into Arctic science because of the changes that are happening,” Melinda Webster, a sea ice expert at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, tells the AP. “We need to get all the help we can because it’s important to understand what’s going on.”

In a statement, Rex expressed excitement about the success of the expedition, and urgency regarding the global situation surrounding climate change. "If we don’t make immediate and sweeping efforts to combat climate warming, we’ll soon see ice-free Arctic summers, which will have incalculable repercussions for our own weather and climate," says Rex. “Arctic sea ice is not only an important part of the global climate system; it is also a unique ecosystem and the basis of life for many indigenous societies. We should do everything within our power to preserve it for future generations.”

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