Notes from the Field

Final Preparations

September 17th, 2019 by Nathan Kurtz, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

MOSAiC is a polar expedition on the German research icebreaker Polarstern, which will drift along in the Arctic Ocean while trapped in sea ice for one year. The expedition is led by the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

The view of Tromsø from a nearby mountain. Photo by Nathan Kurtz.

Final preparations are now underway for MOSAiC with our departure scheduled for Friday and with it I’ll be writing about some of my experiences throughout the expedition. Many of the scientists in my group arrived in Tromsø on Saturday and since then we’ve been conducting final training, instrument preparation, and packing. This has been a massive international effort and those involved have done a tremendous job to get us to this point. Now as these final preparations begin the air is filled with a palpable mixture of excitement, stress, and innumerable other feelings that come out like bursting bubbles of emotions most typically expressed over food and drinks.

Primarily there seems to be a sense of uncertainty. Is there something we forgot? What will the ice conditions be like when we get there? What difficulties will we encounter that we could better prepare for now? Questions like these are ever present on the minds of scientists as our jobs require us to be critical, questioning, and exacting. Uncertainty is something that is always expected and tolerated, but to which we are always striving to reduce to as low a level as possible. For my own part, I can thankfully be more tolerant of these kinds of uncertainties. I am relatively new to field work and not reliant on a particular experiment to make or break my science, rather I am primarily interested in utilizing the data collected to improve and evaluate the sea ice thickness retrievals from the ICESat-2 satellite which was launched almost exactly a year ago today. ICESat-2 is a laser altimeter which will benefit from measurements such as snow depth, ice thickness, freeboard, and density. MOSAiC is well set up to take these measurements from a variety of scales and I’ll be looking to help out where I can with these and other aspects of the initial set-up of the expedition.

Aside from my own personal science interests there is a vast array of other experiments being conducted which will measure properties of the ocean, ice, snow, and atmosphere. For this reason, the expedition has been billed as the largest ever conducted in the central Arctic. But inevitably questions of identity and importance have come up in discussion with my colleagues. Where will MOSAiC fit in the history of Arctic research such as in comparison to the highly successful Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) ship expedition which was undertaken nearly 20 years ago? It’s a difficult question and contingent on many factors, some of which (such as where the ice drift will take us over the coming months) are beyond our control. There also seems to be a bit of a differing viewpoint between how non-scientists and scientists view the expedition. For scientists, fieldwork is an exciting part of our job, but still something to be viewed in the context of work. For non-scientists it seems to carry the air of adventure and hearkens back to the past era of Arctic exploration where there was much more unknown, dangerous, and an association with the hero’s journey. Thankfully we live in a much safer time where modern technology and preparations have made things a bit more routine. But as I experienced quite viscerally today during helicopter escape training, going through the motions of breath control and calm action needed for escape from a submerged vessel are a reminder that the ever present element of danger in a hostile landscape still creates feelings (albeit much milder) of adventure and heroism even if things are much different in modern times.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that has come up is the pain and sadness of leaving family and friends behind for such a long period of time with only limited communication in the form of text-only emails being available. Those going for the full leg will not be coming back until just after the new year, quite a long time to be away. Having good companions for the journey will be an essential element for combating loneliness, and thankfully those I’ve met so far have been friendly and up for the job. Hearing that my own young children were crying as they came to terms with just how long my own absence will be has also not been an easy thing to take. I’m reminded that the word nostalgia (the root meaning of which means “pain for home”) originally referred to a disease with quite severe symptoms. Though I prefer the modern meaning of the word which allows for a more positive reminder that I have something to look forward to after my work on the ship is finished.

In just a few days time we’ll finally begin our voyage starting first into the open ocean as we head north. Though a bit anxious about this from not having spent much time on the open ocean before, I’m inspired by the words of the poet Rilke in treating this as a unique time for inducing an internal sense of order “when anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.” Lastly, I’m reminded that despite the danger and sacrifices made to participate in field work that we do these things because we’re passionate about our jobs and deeply believe in the importance of the research being done. So despite whatever inevitable concerns are present, I’m largely filled with excitement as I look forward to the great adventure to come!

One Response to “Final Preparations”

  1. Liz Miller says:

    Great job Nate I could feel your passion for your work and your longing to be with your family. I will be saying prayers for all if you to safely return and crunch the data you gathered. Good sailing, clear skies and safe return!