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Notes from the Field

In Search of a New Home Across the Frozen Sea

September 30th, 2019 by By Nathan Kurtz

The Polarstern, pictured here in 2015, is the research icebreaker on which scientists in September 2019 embarked on the MOSAiC expedition. Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Mario Hoppmann (CC-BY 4.0) 

Ten days ago the Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, traversing the remote Kara and Barents Seas and crossing just north of the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya. These days in the ice-free seas were filled with preparation work such as moving cargo for staging on the ice, readying equipment, discussing work plans, and perhaps most importantly: getting to know all the people I now live and work with quite closely every day. Much like the ups and downs of the waves in the ocean, the journey has had its share of each. The low point most surely being a few days of sea sickness which was quite debilitating, though not actually as bad as I had feared before the trip.

We entered the Arctic sea ice pack a bit east of Severnaya Zemlya in search of seismic instruments deployed a year ago on the ocean floor. The ship’s feed of satellite data told us the concentration of ice in the area and as we drew near the ship came alive with excitement as people gathered to see the first ice of the expedition. The ice that we saw was at first just a few scattered floes, mainly ice that had barely survived the summer melting season. But this gave way to areas filled with second year ice covered with snow and a dazzling array of beautiful ice types that represent the early stages of new ice growth. Some examples included large pockets of slush which made the ocean look like a thick soup as well as small patches of pancake ice which are circular pieces of ice just a few feet across. It was quite a profound moment to see the ice from the ship for the first time, but particularly so for some people in our group who had never seen sea ice in person before.

After picking up the seismic instruments we began our transit into the much more concentrated area of the pack ice in the central Arctic Ocean. Our target was an area around 85 degrees latitude and 135 degrees longitude, here the Transpolar Drift takes sea ice towards Greenland and the Fram Strait over the course of the year and an analysis of past sea ice drift trajectories showed this should be the optimal place to find a floe that meets our numerous scientific and logistical requirements. For me, the transit through the main pack ice on the ship was an extraordinary and unique experience compared to how I have seen and worked on the ice in the past. Much of my work uses satellite data (most recently from NASA’s ICESat-2 mission launched just last year) to determine sea ice thickness, and I have also flown many times over the Arctic ice as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission. That work gives me a very high level view of the ice. For example, I can use satellite data to create a map of Arctic sea ice thickness to see large-scale properties such as where the ice is thick and thin, and see changes from year to year.

But viewing the ice from the ship is quite different, the intricate details and variability of the ice becoming the dominating factor as ice is viewed from just a few feet away, and the vastness of the area is brought into more human scales as we travel around at much slower speeds than a plane or satellite flies. This change in perspective allows me to again see the Arctic not as some small place on a map with the ice having a thickness which changes rather smoothly over large distance, but as a quite vast and remote area with enormous variability. It is this merging of perspectives and (soon) data, from the ground level up to the satellite level that I will use to add to our collective knowledge of the Arctic sea ice pack and contribute to the understanding of the large changes which are occurring to it. In trying to grasp the enormity of the changes which are occurring, a stark thought came to my mind while viewing the ice from off the side of the ship. The thought that when my children reach my age it is unlikely they will be able to witness what I am seeing right now, because it is likely by then that much of the Arctic Ocean will be free of sea ice at the end of the summer melt season.

Now we’ve come close to our target area and have embarked on a search for our “home” for the next year. That home is an ice floe which has just the right characteristics of size, thickness, and representativeness to support the huge suite of scientific instruments and projects that comprise MOSAiC. Several potential floes have been identified from satellite data, but until we deploy people on the ground to measure the thickness of the ice it is uncertain which one would we should choose. Today we investigated a candidate floe with a more extensive survey team. I got to join one of the teams setting out a navigation system for the floes. Since the ice is constantly drifting we don’t want to use just simple latitude/longitude coordinates from GPS, but rather to transform that data to a reference frame that moves along with the floe itself. My job on this particular excursion was not scientific, but serving as a polar bear guard. While I never imagined my career as a scientist would take me in this line of work, I’m thankful we were provided good training such that I could feel up to the task and contribute to the work on the ice today.

Being able to set foot on the ice floe and leaving the comfort of the ship was a humbling experience. This strange and dangerous place where no human had likely set foot before. An area seemingly frozen in time as the sun completes a dying circle around the horizon, setting ever sooner each day and giving way to the endless polar night over the course of the next week. But many changes are actually happening here in the Arctic and to the ice. They can be hard to see with human eyes at times, so we’ll continue searching for our new home until we find a place to set up our sensitive equipment to see better what is happening in the ocean, on the ice, and in the atmosphere.

One Response to “In Search of a New Home Across the Frozen Sea”

  1. Carrie L. Duncan says:

    This piece of journalism that you have written is excellent Nathan, from the narrative we feel as we are with you, on this incredible journey. Yourself & the others, are paving the way for future generations to come, as you discover from your findings, intricate details that others might have been curious about, but never seized the opportunity to seek the results. Safe travels to All, looking forward to future updates.

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