Well, life has changed and I’ve been neglectful of my promise to post journals a couple times per month throughout the MOSAiC Expedition. I’m sorry. But I’m trying to be gentle with myself. Life has changed and I’ve been busy. Busy making place-based educational videos and at-home learning resources for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, socializing baby pigs, taking a nature journaling course, learning and playing alongside a 7-year old while school is closed, planting beans and rhubarb, looking for spring eggs in local tidepools, and doing Zoom karaoke with my parents and sister! I hope you are also finding enough (but not too many!) ways to be busy and are being kind to yourself.
As I’ve been sitting here in the comfort of my home and backyard (and sitting here in the comfort of my home and backyard and sitting here in the comfort of my home and backyard…), I do think often of the researchers involved in the MOSAiC Expedition and especially those currently on the Polarstern. While they’ve been in the Central Arctic Ocean, things back home have changed dramatically. Being so far away from family and friends must be especially challenging during times like this. And to make it more difficult, the timing of different legs for the expedition has had to shift significantly.
First, let’s talk about the participants of Leg 2. They left Norway on an icebreaker headed for the Polarstern in early December, and rotated onto the Polarstern December 18, 2020. They spent 3 months in the near complete dark of polar night.
Then dense winter pack ice and windy, stormy conditions in February delayed the rotation between Leg 2 and Leg 3. The Russian icebreaker Dranitsyn, with the Leg 3 scientists and crew and resupply items was unable to get close to the Polarstern. Helicopter flights were limited due to poor weather conditions.
Finally, during the final days of February, the Dranitsyn was able to push fairly close to the Polarstern. Weather cooperated for helicopter flights. Leg 2 people flew off the Polarstern, and Leg 3 people flew onto it. Leg 2 people began the transit back to Tromso, Norway on the icebreaker Dranitsyn. But the saga wasn’t over yet.
As they neared the sea ice edge, storms raged in the North Atlantic. Sea ice really dampens (decreases) ocean waves and swell, so it was safer for the
Dranitsyn to wait out the storms within the area of heavy ice cover.
As this was unfolding, the COVID-19 outbreak in the rest of the planet reached pandemic scale and more countries began responding with strict travel restrictions. Norway – where the ship was scheduled to dock – closed all ports. This applied to the scientists and crew aboard the Dranitsyn, even though the participants of Leg 2 hadn’t been on land since December 2019! And even the crew of the Dranitsyn hadn’t been on land, or near anyone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 for weeks.
The support team at the Alfred Wegner Institute and other participating institutions worked tirelessly to find a solution. Eventually, they were able to get Norway to grant an exception. The Dranitsyn docked in Tromso and all participants immediately boarded a special chartered flight to Germany. From there, participants had to work with their own institutions to determine if, how, and when they could finally return home. This part of their adventure was almost over.
But for Leg 3 participants, it was just beginning. They watched Polar Night shift to Midnight Sun. In the Central Arctic Ocean, winter is yielding to spring. Though temperatures aren’t yet “warm,” the increase in sunlight may be driving a bloom of ice algae and the ramping up of ecosystem productivity. This is an exciting time to be in the Arctic! And a fascinating time to look at how coupled systems react to this seasonal change. In the past, the Central Arctic Ocean has been largely inaccessible to researchers this time of year. Field data of this seasonal shift is rare.
It is good that the science of these months is especially engaging, because the researchers and crew of Leg 3 have been out there in the Central Arctic a little longer than expected. The COVID-19 has significantly delayed the rotation between Leg 3 and Leg 4 participants. They were supposed to leave the Polarstern via flights to the island of Svalbard. But Svalbard shut off completely, with all travel for nonresidents prohibited. Instead, two smaller German research vessels will be used to transport people to the ice edge in late May. Starting May 1st, all participants of the Leg 4 team will go into quarantine in Bremerhaven, Germany. The plan is that they will leave the port of Bremerhaven sometime between May 18-22 on the RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian and head to the ice edge.
Because there are no true icebreakers available, the Polarstern will actually leave the ice camp in mid-May and transit to the ice edge to meet the two smaller vessels. Some of the research equipment will be left on the ice to collect data automatically. Other equipment will be brought onboard to ensure it isn’t lost or damaged if the ice shifts while the Polarstern is away.
The plan is for the vessels to meet in a fjord off the coast of Svalbard, for protection from storms. No contact will be made on land, since Svalbard is closed due to COVID-19 concerns. Leg 3 participants are expected to arrive back in Bremerhaven in early June. This will be their first time on land since January, 4-5 months before!
Meanwhile, the Polarstern will head back to the ice camp. At that stage, the science team will likely decide to actually move the entire ice camp farther north. Researchers anticipate that by then the drift of the ice floe will be pushing close to the warmer waters of the North Atlantic, where the ice camp could quickly break apart. If conditions in June suggest this is likely, relocating the camp farther north will decrease the risk that the expedition will have to end early. The hope is that the Leg 4 team will be able to rotate out with Leg 5 in late summer. This final leg will hopefully be able to conduct research from the Polarstern and the (potentially relocated) ice camp until sometime in September.
Those who follow the MOSAiC expedition closely may be saying, “Wait, what about Leg 6?” Because the COVID-19 pandemic has made the logistics of travel much more difficult and risky, the decision was made to combine the final 3 legs of the expedition into just 2. There is no Leg 6. Participants worked with their team leads and institutions to decide how to rearrange who would be on Leg 4 and Leg 5. For all sorts of reasons, some people unfortunately will not be able to participate in the expedition as planned. Others, who were helping from back home, now have the unexpected opportunity to participate in the field.
How complicated! And I'm sure there will be more changes, as the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold.
A year-long, multi-disciplinary, international expedition to study the Central Arctic Ocean from the sea ice was always going to be a major undertaking. No matter what, the logistics were hugely complicated for the managing institutions. And it was a huge personal commitment for all of the researchers, logistics people, and crew who signed on to spend one – or more! – legs in the ice with the Polarstern. And research in the Arctic is not without plenty of dangers.
But for everyone involved, the opportunity to study the coupled systems of the Central Arctic Ocean at this stage in our changing climate was worth it. With the COVID-19 pandemic making things even more complicated and extending the time away from home, I am so grateful for all who continue to truly put their lives on the line to improve our understanding of Arctic systems and our global climate. I also deeply appreciate those who are working endlessly behind the scenes to find and implement a compromise that supports the well-being of participants, allows the critical research of the expedition to continue, and is actually feasible with all of the logistic constraints. Thank you!
Think of three things you are grateful for. List them in writing, say them out loud, and/or draw or photograph them.
Respond to this prompt: "Are there question(s) you care so deeply about that you would be willing at some point in your life to leave your family and friends for months to seek answers to them? If so, what question(s) would inspire you to do so? Why? If not, explain your reasons." You can respond in writing, record yourself speaking, or have a conversation with someone you know.
If you can safely do so, get out in your own backyard or the nature in your community to observe signs of spring (or fall, in the southern hemisphere). You can make informal observations, or design a small-scale science investigation to conduct. Bio-rings are a great way to collect some data and get to know your local ecosystem a little better. All you need is access to an outdoor space, a way to write down data, and some way to mark out a small amount of space. A hula hoop works great if you have one, but you can also use an empty picture frame or a wire coat hanger bent to make a square. You can also make a loop out of wire or a piece of string -- you want it to be about 1 to 2 feet in diameter. A field guide or access to online guides or a resource like iNaturalist are also helpful, but not absolutely necessary. You can describe organisms rather than name them. Walk into the space where you are going to conduct the bio-ring investigation. Randomly toss your loop or square into the ecosystem. Wherever it lands (assuming it is safe) is where you will investigate. Make observations of the life inside your bio-ring, using this worksheet from the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies or your own questions to guide you. See what you discover!