“The Arctic is the epicentre of climate change,” writes Markus Rex. It is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and what happens in the Arctic does not stay there. Conditions here affect weather elsewhere, driving the air currents that determine the weather across the Northern hemisphere. Yet despite the importance of the region, “there is much we do not understand. The Arctic is where our climate models operate with least certainty.”
One of the reasons that the Arctic is under-studied is that it is so inhospitable. Scientific research is mainly conducted in the summer, when the the region is accessible. In winter it is too cold to get safely in and out. Year-round data has been in short supply, and it needed a particularly ambitious scientific project to make up the deficit: the MOSAiC expedition.
Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate was a 2019 plan to sail the German ice-breaker ship Polarstern to the Arctic, deliberately trap it into the ice as the winter sets in, and drift with the sea ice right through the winter. It would allow scientists to gather a complete year of data in the same place, observing the freeze and the thaw up close for the first time. While the explorer Fridtjof Nansen locked his ship in the ice in 1879 and discovered the transpolar ice drift in the process, no scientific team has attempted a year long over-winter lock-in deep in the Arctic before.
That’s the story told in The Greatest Expedition of all Time, by the expedition leader and atmospheric scientist Markus Rex. Translated from the original German, it’s written as excerpts from a diary. It explains the idea behind the mission, the science that the various teams are conducting, and why it matters in a climate change context. It’s also a real insight into the day to day realities of Arctic research. We learn about how to read the ice and move safely across it. There are regular encounters with polar bears, which are determined to sniff about the camp and chew the cables, and have to be scared away with flares. We learn about the rhythms the crew put in place to stay sane and healthy in the 24 hour darkness of a polar winter.
“No matter how well we plan and prepare, there’s no such thing as normal in this environment,” writes Rex. Being neither on land nor at sea, conditions on the ice change all the time. You can wake up in the morning and find huge cracks have fractured your base. What was a 100 yard walk to a research site might now be three times that, with water to cross on the way. Electric cables need to be relaid. The pressure on the ice is constantly building, with ridges and formations rising and changing.
As an added headache, the Covid pandemic nearly scuppered the entire expedition. In a complex logistical plan, supply ships were due at various points, fighting their way through the ice to deliver supplies and rotate teams of scientists and crew. Crew members came from 37 different nations, each with their own pandemic restrictions. You can imagine the chaos, and the mission hung by a thread at various points.
It did succeed however. The Polarstern drifted with the ice, travelling further north than any ship before it, reaching as far as 180 miles from the North Pole. By the time the crew had waited out the thaw and observed all its processes, they had gathered 135 terabytes of data. Hundreds of new scientific papers have been written off the back of it, and the scientific findings from MOSAiC can be explored on their website.
MOSAiC is a remarkable example of scientific enquiry and international collaboration, and Markus Rex tells it like an adventure story. I expect someone will make a movie out of it at some point, but in the meantime there’s this cracking book to enjoy, and lots of Youtube videos from the expedition too.