Image courtesy of MOSAiC/Michael Gutsche

The grand finale to the expedition of a century

 

After 389 days, the largest Arctic research expedition of all time comes to a successful end in Bremerhaven

 

After more than a year in the Central Arctic, the research icebreaker Polarstern returned to her homeport in Bremerhaven today. Accompanied by a ‘welcome committee’ of ships that came to greet, the ship entered the North Lock with the morning high tide at approximately 9:00 am CEST. At port, Expedition Leader Markus Rex, Captain Thomas Wunderlich and the entire team from the final leg of the expedition were welcomed by the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, and the Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Antje Boetius.

The event marked the end of a record-breaking expedition: never before had an icebreaker ventured so far north during the Arctic winter, and never before could international researchers comprehensively gather such urgently needed climate data in the region of the world hardest hit by climate change. Drifting with the ice, they endured the extreme cold, Arctic storms, a constantly changing floe – and the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Through the MOSAiC project led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Plymouth, researcher Katrin Schmidt of the university joined the ground-breaking expedition to understand the role of sea algae in supporting the unique food web of the Arctic in a changing climate.
 
On 20 September 2019 Polarstern departed from the Norwegian port of Tromsø, bound for the Central Arctic, the epicentre of climate change. Once there, the ship allowed itself to become trapped in the ice, and began a one-year-long drift across the North Pole, completely at the mercy of natural forces – the route and speed were solely determined by the ice drift, powered by wind and currents. Over the five cruise legs of the expedition, a total of 442 researchers, Polarstern crewmembers, young investigators, teachers and members of the press took part. Seven ships, several aircraft and more than 80 institutions from 20 countries were involved. The researchers, who hailed from 37 countries, had a common goal: to investigate complex interactions in the climate system between the atmosphere, ice and ocean, so as to better represent them in climate models. They also explored life in the Central Arctic for an entire year. Now they have returned home with a wealth of impressions from the rapidly transforming Arctic, and with an unparalleled treasure trove of data, which an entire generation of climate researchers will focus on analysing.
 
Even when, due to the coronavirus pandemic, virtually every other expedition around the globe was cancelled, thanks to the broad support of the international scientific community and the tireless efforts of the entire team, MOSAiC was able to continue. In the early summer, Polarstern had to briefly depart from her floe, leaving behind autonomous stations to continue monitoring key parameters. Four weeks later, a new team commenced fieldwork on the ice, continuing their efforts right up to the last day, when the floe (as planned) reached the ice edge to the east of Greenland, began breaking up under the influence of the waves, and completed its lifecycle. To explore the last piece of the puzzle in the sea ice’s annual cycle – the formation of new ice at summer’s end – the expedition then headed farther north, reached the North Pole, and moored to a second floe in its vicinity.
 
As such, despite all obstacles, the MOSAiC expedition achieved its goal: to monitor the epicentre of climate change more precisely than ever before, and over the span of an entire year – and by doing so, to take a crucial step forward in our understanding of the Earth’s climate system and how it is changing.
 
Prof Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), commented: “With the MOSAiC expedition, we have followed in the footsteps of the Norwegian polar researcher Fridtjof Nansen, who ventured the first ice drift through the Arctic Ocean more than 125 years ago. Could he have ever imagined how different the Arctic is today? And even with the possibilities of modern polar research, the expedition was no less exciting, taking us far beyond the limits of our previous understanding, and demanding a great deal from the participants, especially due to the pandemic. Today the expedition comes to a successful end, and we have a much clearer grasp of the interplay between the ice, ocean and atmosphere than ever before. The unparalleled commitment of experts from around the globe is what allowed us to make this scientific breakthrough in Arctic research. They have brought back countless samples and comprehensive data from their one-year-long drift. This unprecedented dataset is a gift for all humankind. Now it’s our responsibility to use the new knowledge gleaned to make the right choices – for the future of the Arctic, and with it, the future of our planet.”
 
Prof Markus Rex, Expedition Leader and head of the MOSAiC project, Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), said: “I’m very pleased with how the MOSAiC expedition progressed, and what a complete success it has been. Through the expedition, we can provide the climate data and observations that humanity so urgently needs in order to make fundamental and pressing political decisions on climate protection.”

“We’ve seen how the Arctic ice is dying. In the summer, even at the North Pole, it was characterised by extensive melting and erosion. 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. Though today the Central Arctic remains a fascinating, frozen landscape in winter, the ice is only half as thick as it was 40 years ago, and the winter temperatures we encountered were nearly always ten degrees warmer than what Fridtjof Nansen experienced on his ground-breaking Arctic expedition over 125 years ago.”
 
“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. And it is a realm of fascinating and unmatched beauty. We should do everything within our power to preserve it for future generations.”

Thomas Wunderlich, Captain of the Polarstern, stated: “On the way north, I was especially impressed to see how many stretches of open water and therefore easily navigable ice we encountered, even near the North Pole. We didn’t get stuck a single time, and were able to follow a route to the north of Greenland that should normally be avoided, since the area is known for its massive, virtually impenetrable sea ice. Despite the serious challenges posed by resupplying at sea, and not at port, all transfers went remarkably well. I have a great deal of respect for the nautical prowess of the other captains involved, who completed the transfers in winter, during the long polar night, and even at temperatures below minus 30 degrees, when the cargo cranes on the Russian resupply icebreaker were only partly functional. The outstanding commitment of the crew and researchers under these conditions warrants a successful expedition, and I’m very glad that we have all returned to our homeport, safe and sound.”

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