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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.

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!