Thayer team to be frozen in Arctic ice for historic polar expedition

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Dartmouth researchers support global climate study


HANOVER, N.H. – September 20, 2019 – Dartmouth experts on Arctic sea ice and snow cover are taking part in what is billed as the “largest polar expedition in history.” The year-long, multinational Arctic expedition began today when a German icebreaker, the Polarstern, set sail from Tromsø, Norway.

Beyond simply cruising across the Arctic over the next year, the Polarstern will intentionally lock itself into the Arctic ice. Once frozen into the ice, the icebreaker will drift with the floe as it tracks across the ocean to study the health of the high Arctic.

The “Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate” (MOSAiC) expedition marks the first time a modern research icebreaker will be set to drift in the Arctic for an entire year. The path of the drift is expected to allow scientists to comprehensively investigate the region, including by observing the Arctic winter in the vicinity of the North Pole.

“The threats posed to the planet from global climate change are real and they are coming on fast,” said Donald Perovich, a professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and the expedition’s co-lead for sea ice research. “Hopefully, this study will be historic not only for its scale, but for its ability to allow us to understand the causes and consequences of changes in the Arctic.”

Focused planning for the MOSAiC expedition began about a decade ago. Climate processes in the central Arctic that will be studied in the research form a missing piece in the puzzle that is needed to better understand global climate change.

“After over ten years of planning, this research mission could not come at a more important time. The impacts of climate change are amplified in the Arctic, so this could be our best shot to explore the region while there is still time to assess and respond to change,” said Perovich, a member of the expedition’s project board.

MOSAiC is led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). According to the organizer, the expedition’s rotating crews of researchers and support teams will gather data on the Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, ocean, ecosystems and biogeochemistry “in order to gain insights into the interactions that shape the Arctic climate and life in the Arctic Ocean.”

During the year-long expedition, nearly 300 researchers from 17 countries will rotate aboard the Polarstern. The project will deploy an international fleet of four icebreakers as well as helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to support the research. In total, the expedition will include 600 international participants and cost about $155 million.

“The uncertainties in our climate models are nowhere bigger than in the Arctic,” said Markus Rex, head of MOSAiC and an atmospheric physics expert from the Alfred Wegener Institute. “There aren’t any reliable prognoses of how the Arctic climate will develop further or what that will mean for our weather. Our mission is to change that.”

Dartmouth researchers participating in MOSAiC include Perovich, Thayer graduate students Ian Raphael and David Clemens-Sewall, as well as Christopher Polashenski, an adjunct assistant professor at Thayer and a research geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). 

“Due to logistical and scientific constraints there is much we don’t know about processes in the Arctic,” said Clemens-Sewall. “The multidisciplinary approach and superior logistical support will enable us to learn more about the Arctic and help us predict future climate change.”

Perovich, Clemens-Sewall and Polashenski will sail on later legs of the expedition. Raphael will join the Polarstern for a second time in August 2020 for the expedition’s final leg. 

“MOSAiC is so critical because the sheer volume of data that we will collect simply isn’t feasible any other way,” said Raphael, who will research ice growth and the melting of sea ice. “We already know that the climate is rapidly changing, and we have enough data to understand why. We desperately need structural change, and that starts with evidence that can’t be ignored.”

In addition to the Dartmouth team, countries represented in the expedition include Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The ship-based teams will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea.

The MOSAiC web app tracks the Polarstern’s drift route live: