UK scientists to join Arctic research ship 'drifting' past North Pole

29 August 2018

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.

Scientists drilling Artic Ocean sea ice

Scientists drilling Arctic Ocean sea ice

Six berths on the 120m-long icebreaker 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 (AWI), the €120 million Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) 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. 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 & Innovation Sam Gyimah 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 £200 million investment in polar research and our new polar ship RRS 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 & 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.

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% came from Germany's Federal Ministry of Education & Research (BMBF).

The six UK research projects funded by NERC are detailed below. Abstracts and full list of collaborators can be found on Grants on the Web - external link.

  • Seasonal evolution of Ku- and Ka-band backscattering horizon over snow on first-year and multiyear sea ice
    Principal investigator: Dr Julienne Stroeve at University College London.
  • Sea Salt Aerosol above Arctic Sea Ice - sources, processes and climate impacts
    Principal investigator: Dr Markus Frey, British Antarctic Survey.
  • MOSAiC Boundary Layer
    Principal investigator: Professor Ian Brooks, University of Leeds.
  • Quantifying the contribution of sympagic versus pelagic diatoms to Arctic food webs and biogeochemical fluxes
    Principal investigator: Dr Angus Atkinson, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
  • Floe-scale observation and quantification of Arctic sea ice breakup and floe size during the autumn-to-summer
    Principal investigator: Dr Byongjun Hwang, University of Huddersfield.
  • Sea Ice Microbiology and the Role In Cycling of Sulfur
    Dr Hendrik Schaefer, University of Warwick.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
External Communications Manager
01793 411939


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

Infographic about the transpolar drift

The Transpolar Drift

From autumn 2019, the German research icebreaker Polarstern will drift through the Arctic Ocean, locked in the ice. During the MOSAIC expedition, experts from 17 nations will observe the Arctic in the course of an entire year, and will overwinter in a region that is practically inaccessible during the long polar night. Further, the drifting sea ice alone will determine Polarstern's route, which will take it beyond the Northern Lights.

The German research icebreaker Polarstern will be at the heart of the expedition.

Surrounding Polarstern, a several-kilometre-wide network of monitoring stations will be set up.

During the expedition, at least three research aircraft will be deployed, flying from Station Nord in Greenland and Longyearbyen in Svalbard.

Four icebreakers from Russia, China and Sweden will resupply the expedition with fuel, and exchange personnel. These will sail from Tromso in Norway.