UK researchers join biggest ever Arctic research expedition

20 September 2019

  • Seven UK research teams set to join first ever year-round expedition into the central Arctic ocean
  • Vessel will be frozen into the Arctic sea ice then drift across the top of the Arctic Ocean
  • Scientists from 17 countries to undertake ground-breaking studies into the Arctic climate system and help take climate research to a completely new level

UK research teams are set to join the first ever year-round expedition into the central Arctic Ocean to undertake ground-breaking studies into the Arctic climate system during the middle of the polar night.

In the largest polar expedition in history, the German research icebreaker RV Polarstern will set sail from Tromsø, Norway, on Friday 20 September to spend a year to take the closest look ever at the Arctic as the epicentre of global warming and to gain fundamental insights that are key to better understand global climate change.

During the course of the year seven UK research teams will join hundreds of scientists from 16 other countries including Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. They will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea.

The expedition, called The Multi-Disciplinary drifting Observatory for the study of Arctic Climate programme (MOSAiC), will see the RV Polarstern frozen into the Arctic sea ice and then drift across the top of the Arctic Ocean. It is led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and entails unprecedented challenges. An international fleet of 4 icebreakers, helicopters and aircraft will supply the team on its epic voyage. A total of 600 international participants, half of which are researchers, will be part of the mission.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“The UK has a proud history of polar exploration and scientific discoveries, from Ernest Shackleton to Sir John Franklin.

“This latest polar expedition is the biggest ever undertaken and illustrates the extent and ambition of our international collaborations in the search for answers on climate change. With the Arctic ice cap melting at an alarming rate, it is imperative we understand the consequences of polar changes on the rest of the world. 

“The work of the dedicated researchers on this ambitious project, right at the heart of the Arctic region, will help us do just that. This voyage could provide the way for us all to have a safer, greener and brighter future.”

The seven UK research projects were granted £1.8 million of NERC funding from the UK Government’s Business department to ensure the UK is at the forefront of international scientific collaborations.

It also reflects the UK government’s commitment to boost R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and underpinning, through research, of its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In addition, the NERC Arctic Office worked closely with BEIS to secure £500,000 funding for UK researchers to join the vessel during the expedition phase.

The international research teams will conduct an enormous range of marine, atmospheric, biological and other research from the floating platform, field camps and advanced remote and autonomous vehicles. It is expected the vessel will complete its drift by October 2020.

NERC Executive Chair Professor Duncan Wingham said:

“This unprecedented research project offers the opportunity for the UK research teams taking part to make a step-change in in-situ observations and contribute to understanding the regional and global consequences of Arctic change.”

Dr Markus Frey, of the British Antarctic Survey, which is one of the seven UK project teams said:

“Small salty particles produced above sea ice may influence water and ice cloud formation and therefore climate in a rapidly changing Arctic. MOSAiC provides us with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate particle sources and processes above sea ice year-round in the poorly known central Arctic ocean. The new data will ultimately improve climate models and predictions of Arctic climate and sea ice. At the moment, I am most excited about arriving at the ice floe, when all the preparations will pay off, and data will start to come in.”

Prof. Julienne Stroeve, UCL Earth Sciences, also taking part said:

“New climate model projections of the future evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover show the possibility of winter ice-free conditions by the end of this century. How thick the sea ice is will play a key role in how quickly it will disappear. Our work on MOSAiC will improve our ability to measure sea ice thickness from satellites and provide valuable information on snow accumulation.”

Markus Rex, Head of MOSAiC, Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany:

“This mission is ground breaking. Never before has there been such a complex Arctic expedition.  For the first time we will be able to measure the climate processes in the Central Arctic in winter. And so for the first time we will be able to understand this region and correctly represent it in climate models. The Arctic is the epicentre of global warming and has already undergone dramatic changes. And it is the weather kitchen for our weather in North America, Europe, and Asia. Extreme weather conditions like outbreaks of cold Arctic air here in winter, or heat waves in summer are linked to the changes in the Arctic. At the same time, the uncertainties in our climate models are nowhere bigger than in the Arctic. There aren’t any reliable prognoses of how the Arctic climate will develop further or what that will mean for our weather. Our mission is to change that.”

Notes to editors

The seven UK projects are:

  • Boundary Layer project, led by Professor Ian Brooks, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of Leeds
  • Floe-scale observation and quantification of Arctic sea ice breakup and floe size during the autumn-to-summer transition, led by Dr Phil Hwang, University of Huddersfield
  • Sea Ice Microbiology and the role in cycling of sulphur, led by Dr Hendrik Schafer, University of Warwick
  • Sea Salt Aerosol above Arctic Sea Ice – sources, processes and climate impacts, led by Dr Markus Frey, British Antarctic Survey
  • Seasonal Evolution, led by Professor Julienne Stroeve, University College London
  • Quantifying the contribution of sympagic versus pelagic diatoms to Arctic food webs and biogeochemical fluxes, led by Dr Angus Atkinson, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and Professor Simon Belt, University of Plymouth
  • Seasonable Carbon Uptake, led by Dr Dorothee Bakker, University of East Anglia

If you wish to interview any of these project teams please contact James Easey – james.easey@ukri.org.

Background information on MOSAiC

  • The budget for the expedition is roughly 140 million euros. During the course of the year, circa 300 researchers from 17 countries will be on board, from Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. They will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea. The questions that the researchers will be investigating during the expedition are closely linked. Together they will study the entire climate system in the Central Arctic for the first time. They will gather data on five subareas: atmosphere, sea ice, ocean, ecosystems and biogeochemistry, in order to gain insights into the interactions that shape the Arctic climate and life in the Arctic Ocean.
  • You can find the latest news from the Arctic via the MOSAiC channels on Twitter (@MOSAiCArctic) and on Instagram (@mosaic_expedition) using the hashtags #MOSAiCexpedition, #Arctic and #icedrift. There is more information on the expedition at: www.mosaic-expedition.org. The MOSAiC web app allows you to follow Polarstern’s drift route live: follow.mosaic-expedition.org

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