On the 19th August MOSAiC
, the largest Arctic research expedition in history, reached the North Pole. Even without COVID restrictions on travel, organising a year-long drift expedition of an icebreaker, with 5 cruise legs swapping scientists from 20 countries can only be imagined. Maintaining this safely amid COVID is a triumph of perseverance.
One of the cruise participants is University of Plymouth researcher Katrin Schmidt, in a project led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory and University of Plymouth, to understand the role of sea algae in supporting the unique food web of the Arctic.
Snatched WhatsApp messages from Katrin as the German icebreaker Polarstern approached the pole: "Frozen desert…….. 89.3 - getting there......................Best wishes from the North Pole.”
Katrin is working in the MOSAiC SYM-PEL project, the aim of which is to gain a better understanding of the role diatoms (microscopic plants at the base of the food web) play in the arctic food web.
Most of these diatoms drift freely in the water column where they support zooplankton grazers and thus the rest of the Arctic’s iconic food web. However, some diatoms live in sea ice where they form a highly concentrated food source for those grazers that can access it.
The SYM-PEL project is using stable markers specific to pelagic (water column) and ice diatoms to trace their relative importance in supporting the rest of the food web. With Arctic sea ice fast disappearing, this knowledge is essential to gauge who will emerge as winners or losers in a new Arctic that is ice free in summer.
Project lead Dr Angus Atkinson, Senior Plankton Ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory said: “Keeping MOSAiC going has been a demonstration of dogged persistence in the face of multiple adversity from almost every angle - COVID being just one of them. It’s a credit to all involved to keep that show on the road. The Alfred Wegener Institute and all involved with MOSAiC moved heaven and earth to keep the cruise going, and in a safe manner”.