Student View
Scientists standing by a giant ship in Antarctica

117: Number of trips the Polarstern has made to polar regions (shown here in Antarctica in 2013)

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT/STEFAN HENDRICKS

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS3.D

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: 6.3D, 7.3D, 8.3D, E.8E

Trapped in Ice

Scientists allow their ship to freeze into the ice at the top of the world to better understand a changing Arctic

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the challenges involved in studying Earth’s polar regions.

During the bitter-cold polar winter, temperatures plunge to -40°C (-40°F). The Arctic Ocean, which is already icy, freezes up even more. The sea becomes a flat expanse of white. When a ship makes its way through this region during the coldest parts of the year, one of the crew’s top priorities is to avoid getting stuck as the ocean around the vessel ices over. But this past fall, an international team of researchers launched an expedition that would make most sea captains shudder: The scientists decided to let their ship freeze into the famously treacherous Arctic sea ice—on purpose.

During the bitter-cold polar winter, temperatures drop to -40°C (-40°F). The Arctic Ocean is already icy, but now even more of it freezes. The sea becomes a flat sheet of white. When a ship travels through this region during the coldest parts of the year, the ocean around it freezes. One of the crew’s top concerns is to avoid getting stuck. But this past fall, an international team of researchers started an unusual expedition. Their plan would make most sea captains shudder. The scientists wanted to let their ship freeze into the dangerous Arctic sea ice—on purpose.

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT/MARKUS REX

100: Number of MOSAiC scientists, technicians, and other crew members aboard the Polarstern

The crew set sail from Norway in September aboard the Polarstern, a special ship called an icebreaker that can cut through sea ice. After reaching the Arctic, the crew sailed the ship into a floe, or large ice slab, and shut off the engines. Then everyone on board waited. Over the next few weeks, the long, dark Arctic winter set in and the surrounding sea froze. The ship became trapped within the newly formed ice sheet (see Icy Expeditions).

The crew is now in the midst of a year drifting wherever the floating sea ice takes them. But the scientists have plenty to keep them busy: They’re conducting the most comprehensive study of Arctic ice in history. As climate change continues, long-term global weather patterns are shifting. On average, the planet is growing warmer, but different regions are heating up at different rates. “The Arctic is changing faster than the rest of the globe,” says Matthew Shupe. He’s an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and one of the lead researchers with the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). “The way things go there will tell us a lot about what the world will be like for the next generation,” he says.

The crew set sail from Norway in September on the Polarstern. This ship is an icebreaker that can cut through sea ice. The crew reached the Arctic and sailed the ship into a floe, or large ice slab. They shut off the engines. Then everyone on board waited. Over the next several weeks, the long, dark Arctic winter set in. The sea froze around them. The ship became trapped in the newly formed ice sheet (see Icy Expeditions).

Now the crew is drifting wherever the floating sea ice takes them. The expedition will last a year. But the scientists have plenty to keep them busy. They’re conducting the biggest study of Arctic ice in history. Long-term global weather patterns are shifting because of climate change. On average, the planet is growing warmer. But different regions are heating up at different rates. Matthew Shupe is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado. He’s one of the lead researchers with the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). “The Arctic is changing faster than the rest of the globe,” he says. “The way things go there will tell us a lot about what the world will be like for the next generation.” 

HARD TO REACH

Most Arctic research is conducted in the summer, when Earth’s Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun. At that time of year, sunlight shines on the region 24 hours a day. Temperatures can climb to a tolerable 0°C (32°F). “In the summer, the Arctic is a much nicer place to be,” says Shupe.

In the winter, the region is both harder to reach and a tougher environment to work in (see The History of Arctic Exploration). “Winter sea ice is thick and difficult to navigate,”says Shupe. “Not many ships can get through.” The Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the sun in winter. “It’s dark for four months straight, with extreme cold, strong winds, and snowstorms,” Shupe adds. That makes the Arctic nearly inaccessible. Researchers can’t gather information needed to create models to forecast important weather and climate phenomena. Satellites orbiting Earth can collect data and photographs of the Arctic Ocean year-round, but they’re never as detailed as direct measurements. And some aspects—like conditions beneath the ice—are hidden from the view of satellites.

Most Arctic research is conducted in the summer. Earth’s Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun at that time of year. Sunlight shines on the region 24 hours a day. Temperatures can rise to a bearable 0°C (32°F). “In the summer, the Arctic is a much nicer place to be,” says Shupe.

In the winter, the region is both harder to reach and harder to work in (see The History of Arctic Exploration). “Winter sea ice is thick and difficult to navigate,” says Shupe. “Not many ships can get through.” The Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the sun in winter. “It’s dark for four months straight, with extreme cold, strong winds, and snowstorms,” Shupe adds. That makes the Arctic nearly impossible to reach. Researchers need information for models to forecast important weather and climate events. But they can’t gather it in the winter. Satellites orbit Earth, and they can collect data and photographs of the Arctic Ocean all year. But this information is not as detailed as direct measurements. And satellites can’t see some things, like conditions under the ice. 

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT/SEBASTIAN GROTE

ELEVATOR: A crane lowers crew members from the ship onto the ice below.

“We know so little about what’s happening in the winter,” says climatologist Céline Heuzé of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She leads the ocean research component of MOSAiC. Trying to make sense of the Arctic without that winter data, she says, “is like trying to predict climate for the U.S. based only on the weather in July and August.” This expedition provides a rare opportunity for scientists to directly study the Arctic during the winter, which could help them better understand the region—and global climate changes—for years to come.

“We know so little about what’s happening in the winter,” says Céline Heuzé. She’s a climatologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and she leads the ocean research part of MOSAiC. Scientists can try to understand the Arctic without that winter data. But she says that “is like trying to predict climate for the U.S. based only on the weather in July and August.” This expedition gives scientists a rare chance to study the Arctic directly during the winter. That could help them better understand the region—and global climate changes—for years to come. 

DISAPPEARING ICE

There’s an urgency to the expedition because of how rapidly the Arctic is changing. Since the 1980s, the total volume of Arctic ice has declined by about 75 percent. The nature of the ice has changed too: The Arctic used to be dominated by ice that accumulated layer upon layer every winter and stayed frozen for years. Now, the ice that forms is thinner, and in many places, it melts away completely in the summer (see Ice in Decline).

The expedition is urgent because the Arctic is changing quickly. The total volume of Arctic ice is about 75 percent less than in the 1980s. The type of ice has changed too. In the past, most Arctic ice piled up layer upon layer every winter. It stayed frozen for years. Now, the ice that forms is thinner. In many places, it melts completely in the summer (see Ice in Decline). 

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT/ESTHER HORVATH

WILDLIFE WARNING: Polar bears could be a danger for crew members as they work on the ice.

An altered Arctic can have big effects on people all over the world. “The Arctic is crucial for the entire planet,” says Heuzé. Because the ocean transports heat energy around the globe, temperature changes in the Arctic can affect faraway places—sometimes in unexpected ways. Some research suggests that a warming Arctic may be linked to extreme winter weather in the U.S. and Europe, says Heuzé. For example, warmer temperatures may cause more water to evaporate into the atmosphere, which could lead to snowier winter storms.

A warmer Arctic may also alter the path of the polar jet stream, a current of air that flows from west to east around the world. That could push blasts of intense cold air farther south than usual during the winter in places like the U.S.

A changed Arctic can affect people all over the world. “The Arctic is crucial for the entire planet,” says Heuzé. The ocean carries heat energy around the globe, so temperature changes in the Arctic can affect places far away. Sometimes the effects are surprising. Extreme winter weather in the U.S. and Europe could be linked to a warming Arctic. That’s what some research suggests, says Heuzé. For example, warmer temperatures may cause more water to evaporate into the atmosphere. That could lead to snowier winter storms.

A warmer Arctic may also change the path of the polar jet stream. This air current flows from west to east around the world. The change could affect winter weather in places like the U.S. It could push blasts of bitter cold air farther south than usual.

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT/STEFAN HENDRICKS

TOUGH JOB: MOSAiC scientists are collecting data during the Arctic winter, when there’s no sunlight and temperatures dip well below zero.

A WORTHY SHIP

At the heart of the MOSAiC expedition is the Polarstern, which means “polar star” in German. Its engines can produce a total of 20,000 horsepower, enough to push the massive ship up on top of floating ice. The vessel’s hull is made of double-layered steel. This sturdyouter body supports the vessel while its weight crushes and breaks the ice. The Polarstern can bust through ice up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick, allowing it to reach places ordinary ships could never go. The icebreaker’s strong hull also protects the MOSAiC crew while the ship is locked in the frozen Arctic Ocean. The force of the surrounding ice pushing against the ship could crush weaker vessels.

After the ice sheet formed around the Polarstern, the scientists began setting up a network of monitoring devices to collect data from the environment. Using sleds, snowmobiles, and helicopters, they traveled up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the ship to deploy buoys, underwater sensors, weather balloons, drones, and other instruments. The equipment travels with the ship as it drifts, gathering information about the surrounding ice, the atmosphere above, and the ocean below.

The Polarstern is at the heart of the MOSAiC expedition. Its name means “polar star” in German. Its engines can produce a total of 20,000 horsepower. That’s enough to push the massive ship up on top of floating ice. The ship’s hull is made of double-layered steel. This strong outer body supports the ship while its weight crushes and breaks the ice. The Polarstern can bust through ice up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick. It can reach places ordinary ships could never go. The icebreaker’s strong hull also protects the MOSAiC crew. When the ship is locked in the frozen Arctic Ocean, the surrounding ice pushes against the ship. This force might crush weaker ships.

After the ice sheet formed around the Polarstern, the scientists needed to collect data from the environment. So they set up a network of devices. The scientists used sleds, snowmobiles, and helicopters to travel up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the ship. They set up buoys, underwater sensors, weather balloons, drones, and other instruments. The equipment travels with the ship as it drifts. It gathers information about the surrounding ice, the atmosphere above, and the ocean below. 

MISSION PREP

For much of the year, the Polarstern will be extremely isolated, with no easy way to reach the rest of civilization. So the ship had to be stocked with much of the supplies and equipment needed for the duration of the trip before it set sail.

Verena Mohaupt is a logistics expert helping to coordinate the complex operation. She was one of the people in charge of making sure the MOSAiC expedition had the necessary items to complete its research safely. Mohaupt and her teammates managed the mind-boggling shopping and packing lists involved in a yearlong trip. They assembled medical supplies, cold weather gear for researchers working outdoors, and safety equipment like rope and harnesses. Mohaupt spoke with Science World just a few days before the Polarstern’s departure: “This is our last opportunity to get everything loaded on board, and then we have to live for a long time with just what we have,” she said. “There’s always a nagging fear that we’ve forgotten something essential.”

For much of the year, the Polarstern will be on its own. It will have no easy way to reach the rest of civilization. So the ship had to carry much of the supplies and equipment needed for the whole trip. It was stocked before it set sail.

Verena Mohaupt is a logistics expert. She helps organize the complex expedition. She and her teammates made sure the MOSAiC expedition had the items needed to complete its research safely. They managed the giant shopping and packing lists for a yearlong trip. They gathered medical supplies, cold weather gear for researchers to use outside, and safety equipment like rope and harnesses. Mohaupt spoke with Science World just a few days before the Polarstern set off. “This is our last opportunity to get everything loaded on board, and then we have to live for a long time with just what we have,” she said. “There’s always a nagging fear that we’ve forgotten something essential.” 

ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT

DAILY LIFE: Crew members do yoga aboard the ship to stay fit during the expedition.

“The most constant threat for us will be the cold and harsh environment,” says Mohaupt. Before the Polarstern pushed off, her group established rules for expedition members working outside the ship. They included things like the minimum number of people that could venture off-site at once, how far from the ship they could go, and what kind of safety gear they must wear under various conditions.

The logistics team also helped expedition members prepare for another potential challenge: polar bears. “Our safety course taught people how to keep watch, as well as rifle training for emergencies,” says Mohaupt. Whenever researchers are out on the ice, armed lookouts accompany them with the sole job of watching for bears. Heat-sensing cameras and an alarmed fence provide additional protection for the scientists in the icy darkness. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to minimize our interactions with polar bears,” says Shupe. “We don’t want to hurt them, and they probably don’t want to hurt us. But we’re going into their territory, so we have to be prepared.”

“The most constant threat for us will be the cold and harsh environment,” says Mohaupt. Expedition members work outside the ship. Her team made rules to help keep the workers safe. They decided the smallest number of people that could leave the ship at once. They decided how far from the ship people could go. And they decided what kind of safety gear workers must wear under different conditions.

The logistics team also helped expedition members prepare for another challenge. What if they met polar bears? “Our safety course taught people how to keep watch, as well as rifle training for emergencies,” says Mohaupt. When researchers are out on the ice, armed lookouts go with them. The lookouts’ only job is watching for bears. Heat-sensing cameras and an alarmed fence also provide protection in the icy darkness. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to minimize our interactions with polar bears,” says Shupe. “We don’t want to hurt them, and they probably don’t want to hurt us. But we’re going into their territory, so we have to be prepared.” 

TEAMING UP