In 1845 Royal Navy officer and experienced Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin departed England with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, on an expedition to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage in what is today the territory of Nunavut. The expedition — both ships, captain and crew — were never seen again. Erebus and Terror were trapped in rapidly advancing sea ice and that, as they say, was that.
This Tuesday, an expedition aboard the German research icebreaker Polarstern — “Polar Star” — will weigh anchor off the ice floes of the Laptev Sea, with the specific purpose of spending a year trapped in Arctic ice. The world has changed; the polar ice caps are melting; and geolocation satellite technology has advanced to the point where the Polarstern will not only not become lost but will be monitored — not meaning to mix metaphors — every step of the way, not just by other scientists but by landlubbers and layabouts everywhere, thanks to social media.
The expedition is named MOSaiC, for the Multidisciplinary Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. The idea is not to be trapped so much as become wedged in sea ice that, despite its appearance to the naked eye, is not stationary but rather constantly moving. The expedition will not be trapped in place so much as drifting, wedged between slowly moving sheets of ice.
The onboard scientists — and those watching from the outside world — hope to get a better sense of how the Arctic currents tug and pull the constantly shapeshifting sea ice. With Arctic ice in constant retreat, what they discover will help us better understand the effects of climate change, while we can.
The European Space Agency (the expedition owes as much to satellites in orbit as it does human navigators on the ground) has described the project as, “the biggest shipborne polar expedition of all time.”
That may not be entirely true — we live in the age of hyperbole, after all — but this is no safe ’n easy
ocean cruise. Roughly 100 people will live and work aboard the icebreaker, and on the sea ice itself, through the polar winter, in 24-hour darkness, sudden, unpredictable storms and temperatures that may drop as low as -50° F/C.
The expedition is being spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute of the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, based in Bremerhaven, Germany. Wegener, for those not in the know, was an early 20th century polar researcher, geophysicist and meteorologist known primarily for his research into the continental drift, and is considered one of the leading early pioneers of polar research. He was born 35 years after the Franklin Expedition vanished into the cold, wintry air, so it seems only logical that a lifelong polar researcher would become consumed by what happened, when, how and why.
Tânia Casal, a science campaign coordinator with the European Space Agency, told reporters the MOSAiC expedition will provide a unique opportunity to further our understanding of how ocean ice and snow interacts with the atmosphere.
“This will contribute to a more accurate modelling of future Arctic climate scenarios,” she explained.
The five-year period from 2014 to 2019 has been the warmest five-year period in recorded history. Rising sea levels have accelerated significantly during this period, even as carbon dioxide emissions reach new highs. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and has already outstripped projections.
Though climate deniers may not care to hear this, the Earth’s climate works as an interconnected system, not in isolation. The ripple effects of rapid warming are being felt across the planet, not just in the polar regions.
The world is wrong side up: It needs to be turned upside down in order to be right side up. Only time will tell if there’s enough time to right recent wrong. The MOSAiC expedition may seem like a tiny step,