UK scientists will join what could be the largest-scale Arctic research expedition ever planned when the German research ship, RV Polarstern, is deliberately lodged into sea ice to drift past the North Pole.
Six berths on the 120m-long ice-breaker have been confirmed for UK researchers, who will work alongside up to 600 international scientists and crew from 17 countries as part of this major international effort to better understand the fastest changing environment on the planet.
This year-long study will see the RV Polarstern move with the current in the ice across the central Arctic Ocean from September 2019 to September 2020.
Spearheaded by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, the €120 million MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) mission aims to answer some of the biggest scientific questions about the Arctic, including investigating why the region is warming twice as fast as the global average.
This is among the first missions of its kind since the 1890s, when Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole by drifting in a ship locked in ice. Nansen had to abandon his ship when he realised he had gone off track, but the ship itself made it across the ice cap intact and the expedition resulted in breakthrough scientific discoveries about the Arctic and weather patterns.
More than a hundred years later, the MOSAiC research aims to deliver a step change in our understanding of the Arctic climate system and how it affects global climate models. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has partnered with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), who have provided funding for ship berth fees on the MOSAiC expedition.
NERC has now awarded grants worth £1.8 million to six research proposals that will each utilise a two-month berth on the German research vessel.
Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gymiah, said: “Science has no borders and I am delighted that six teams of our world leading scientists, backed by our modern Industrial Strategy, have been chosen to join this international expedition.
“This government is determined to tackle the devastating effects of climate change. Through our £200m investment in polar research and our new polar ship RSS Sir David Attenborough, we will gain a crucial insight into understanding why the Arctic Ocean is warming up.”
NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said: “We know that the dramatic changes in the Arctic climate system and the rapid decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice in summer has a major impact on our global climate. However, we don’t yet adequately understand this warming process, and a lack of year-round observations in the central Arctic makes predicting future changes in the area very challenging. This gap in our understanding of the Arctic climate is one of the most pressing problems in predicting global climate change.
“As part of the MOSAiC programme, world-class scientists from the UK will join their international counterparts on the German icebreaker Polarstern to help us better predict changes in the Arctic and globally. Such large-scale international research collaborations are vital to further our global understanding and response to the world-wide issue of climate change.”
UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Sir Mark Walport said: “The study of the warming process in the Arctic is crucial in order to understand and predict global climate change, and this project promises to greatly enhance our knowledge in this hugely important field.
“International collaboration is essential to increase our knowledge of the planet and our impact upon it. UKRI is committed to increasing opportunities for UK researchers to consolidate and grow activity by working with their counterparts from across the world.”
Coordinator of the MOSAiC project, Professor Markus Rex, Head of Atmospheric Research at the Alfred Wegener Institute, said: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The climate development in our latitudes greatly depends on what weather the Arctic ‘cooks up.’ We now need to take a closer look, and explore the interactions between the atmosphere, ice and ocean there.
“The dramatic scale of Arctic warming isn’t adequately reflected in today’s climate models, and the uncertainties in climate prognoses for the Arctic are enormous. That’s why we have to comprehensively study the processes involved in the climate system, especially in the winter.”
Angus Atkinson from Plymouth Marine Laboratory is leading one of the successful UK-funded projects to join MOSAiC. In partnership with Simon Belt at the University of Plymouth, who has pioneered the use of chemical tracers of sea ice algae, their overall aim is to quantify the roles of phytoplankton living within sea ice and in the underlying water column. What are their relative contributions, both to the base of iconic polar food webs and in exporting carbon towards the abyss? Researcher Katrin Schmidt will join the MOSAiC drift expedition aboard Polarstern in 2020 to help answer these questions.
PI Atkinson said: “Overall, algae living in sea ice seem to comprise a relatively small proportion of the total primary production in the Arctic, but this could belie the importance of this highly concentrated food source. Novel tracer methods are suggesting that it forms a disproportionately large contribution to the Arctic food web. We are looking forward to addressing these questions as part of a grand scale, ambitious and carefully planned international venture.”
The MOSAiC project has been designed under the umbrella of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), led by the AWI, Russian Arctic & Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) and the University of Colorado (CIRES).
The budget for the expedition has been contributed by all of the international partners involved, but chiefly by the Helmholtz Association, which means 90 per cent came from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).