In the fall of this year, several hundred scientists and other professionals will launch the largest Arctic research expedition in history: A 12-month, $134 million, 17-nation effort to document climate change in the fastest-warming part of the globe, our planet’s Arctic.
Home base will be a massive German icebreaker, though the ship will spend only a few weeks under its own power. After reaching a remote part of the Siberian Arctic, the crew will cut the engine and wait for water to freeze around the vessel, entrapping it.
Then the ship, and everyone on it, will be adrift, at the mercy of the ice.
An advance group are currently studying how to map an area’s topography by shooting lasers across the ice and snow. But there’s a problem: The lasers bounce off whirling snowflakes before striking their targets.
What the scientists discover during their year in the frozen north will help them forecast the future of the entire planet.
As Arctic ice vanishes, many scientists expect the steady stream of air that pushes weather across the Northern Hemisphere to wobble, producing periods of punishing cold, brutal hot waves and disastrous floods.
That’s already happening, the Washington Post reported.
If all goes according to plan, the Multi-disciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) will begin on Sept. 20, when the icebreaker RV Polarstern sets out in search of an ice floe to which it can pin its fate.
The ship will spend the next 12 months following that single floe through the central Arctic and across the North Pole, a 387-foot drifting research station inhabited by a rotating cast of some 300 meteorologists, biologists, oceanographers and ice experts.
“We have so many questions that we can only get answers to there,” Melinda Webster, 33, a sea ice expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said. “Finally, this is our one shot to do that.”
Nearly every northern nation is in on the project. Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, a polar research center, is providing the Polarstern and leading the exposition. Russia, China and Sweden have all contributed resupply vessels.
Japanese experts have built flux chambers to measure carbon that moves from the sea ice to the atmosphere and a Swiss team has developed an apparatus for sampling snow.
The National Science Foundation and other United States agencies are contributing more than $25 million in grants, equipment and logistical support, making this one of the most expensive Arctic expeditions the NSF has ever funded.
About 60 people will be living and working on the Polarstern at any given moment; most have signed up for two-month stints, though a few may be on board for half a year or more.
The participants will spend a month getting to the ship. They joke that it’s easier to reach the International Space Station, 250 miles above the surface of the Earth.
The researchers will have no Internet or phone service. They will work seven days a week, with free time granted only at the discretion of their research coordinators. Those on duty from December to February will never see the sun.
“But if we can do this right,” Webster said, “it’s going to give us a huge leap forward in our understanding of Earth and how it’s changing.”
She and her colleagues are currently continuing to collect what information they can. They have no choice but to keep going, Webster said. The world attempts an expedition of this size, expense and risk only “once in a generation.”
The people of Earth should hope that they are successful in meeting their enormously important goals so that the climate change disasters can eventually be placed under scientific control.