Life stranded in ice

Miss Piggy, the nickname of the weather balloon that measures in situ meteorological and aerosol data, being readied for launch. Credit: Michael Gutsche/Alfred-Wegener-Institut

Miss Piggy, the nickname of the weather balloon that measures in situ meteorological and aerosol data, being readied for launch. Credit: Michael Gutsche/Alfred-Wegener-Institut.

Scientists are currently marooned onboard the icebreaker RV Polarstern due to the COVID-19 lockdown; we hear first hand how they are coping, what life is like on the ship, and what ongoing experiments can reveal about climate change in this fascinating region.

The Arctic is the global epicenter of climate change, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Warming rates are twice the global average, with scientists predicting that the Arctic Ocean could become ice free in the summer by 2050.

The effects of this rapid warming aren’t limited to the polar ice caps – what happens in the Arctic has untold consequences on the weather and climate patterns of the entire northern hemisphere.

However, despite this, the Arctic is one of the least understood places on the planet. While the Antarctic is bursting with manned research stations, the North Pole has at best a few temporary stations, drifting on the sea ice.

In the winter this sea ice  is so thick that even the best icebreakers cannot penetrate into  the Arctic, meaning that the central Arctic has remained a ‘black hole’ in terms of understanding the processes at work in the ocean, ice and atmosphere.

This is all set to change thanks to the efforts of a global team of scientists currently marooned on a ship, and drifting slowly across the central Arctic Ocean.The year-long expedition began in September 2019, with the German icebreaker RV Polarstern setting sail from Tromsø, Norway.

In the winter, Arctic ice is so thick that it is impossible to just sail to the North Pole, so the crew’s first job was to find an ice floe big and strong enough for the ship to become ensconced in, and to set up a makeshift research station on the ice. Now the ship is trapped, the hope is that the floe will passively drift towards the Fram Strait, an ocean passage located between Greenland and Svalbard.

The expedition is the first of its kind, and the logistical challenges alone are immense. Nothing like this has been attempted since the Norwegian researcher and explorer Fridtjof Nansen set out on his wooden sailing ship Fram in 1893 with the intention of drifting to the North Pole. Nansen abandoned his ship after it began floating south rather than north; he tried to make it on foot but was forced to turn back.

127 years later, and the logistics are no less daunting. More than 600 scientists from 20 different countries must take it in turns to take up their berths, set up their instruments, and conduct measurements of the atmosphere, sea ice, ocean and ecosystems surrounding the ship. Those working in the winter will face temperatures as low as -45°C.

To put it in perspective, at that temperature batteries no longer work, cables and plastic straps break, and you can’t even write with a pen; any manual action takes at least three times as long as in a warm lab. Along with biting temperatures, scientists in the second leg of the mission have had to work in complete darkness – with no sunlight at all until mid February.

If that isn’t enough, the current crop of researchers onboard have had to contend with the outbreak of a global pandemic, which has at the time of writing has meant that several research flights due to take off from Svalbard, Norway have been cancelled, and the next rotation of researchers, scheduled to join the RV Polarstern in early April, have been unable to embark. As a consequence, there will be only one more team exchange, instead of two.

Markus Frey, an Atmospheric and Glaciochemist at the British Antarctic Survey has been on board the ship since 3 March. Although originally scheduled to remain until early April, he has had to brace himself for a two month delay due to the Corona outbreak.

“It was still winter when I arrived, with the sun below the horizon and temperatures down to -40°C,” says Frey. “After weeks of travelling through the polar night in the Arctic pack ice, it was an amazing feeling to finally see the lights of RV Polarstern at the horizon – signs of life in the central Arctic ocean, one of the most remote places on Earth. After this long journey I was very eager to see my container lab and instruments, and start work on the ice floe.”

Frey is leading the SSAASI-CLIM (Sea Salt Aerosol above Arctic Sea Ice) project, which aims to investigate the impact that small salt particles released above sea ice – known as sea salt aerosols (SSA) – have on cloud formation in the Arctic.

Currently, Arctic clouds are poorly represented in climate models, and we don’t know how they contribute to warming in the region. Gaining a better understanding of SSAs will not only help us understand current Arctic climate change, but will also provide a baseline against which to assess anthropogenic pollution in the region, and evaluate the success of mitigation measures.

Ongoing experiments include measuring the size and concentration of SSAs, and using a tethered balloon to probe the lower 1,000m of the atmosphere and investigate the fate of particles formed near the sea ice surface.

As well as COVID-19, Frey has had to contend with a number of Arctic storms which have made working on the ice floe very challenging.

“If there is one thing I have learned over the past weeks about sea ice, it is to be ready for another surprise each morning,” says Frey. “More storms than typical for this time of year have led to frequent floe breakups around the ship, changing the landscape of our field site dramatically on a daily basis. We have had to cross newly opened leads on foot, by pontoon bridge or even kayak; climb pressure ridges to reach our instruments; carry out maintenance work; and replace cut-off power lines with generators. On one occasion I lost a mast with snow sample collectors, which fell into the sea after an ice break up event.”

Researchers must also contend with the odd polar bear wandering onto the ice floe, and there is always a bear-guard on duty when scientists are working. However this is routine for any Arctic expedition, in contrast to the unforeseen impact of coronavirus and ensuing lockdown. Frey has previously led scientific expeditions to Antarctica, the Arctic and the Bolivian Andes, but this is the first time he or indeed anyone has done so amidst a global pandemic.

“It is very difficult to imagine from the point of view of an ice floe at 84°N how the world as we know it has changed,” says Frey. “We watch the news every day, including the German TV news show from the previous day, and my colleagues at BAS send me regular updates as well. But the new 1.5m-society is still hard to grasp.”

“In terms of the impact on the mission, my opinion these are unforeseen circumstances, but are to be expected with an expedition, where not every detail can be planned in advance,” says Frey. “Compared to the explorers of the Heroic Age we are still in a very comfortable situation, with enough food and fuel, communication to the outside world and the opportunity to carry out some great science.”