Polar News

The MOSAiC Expedition Continues: Hardships and Challenges in the Arctic Winter

At the end of January 2020, a Russian icebreaker left the Norwegian city of Tromsø for the German research vessel Polarstern, which sits frozen in the Arctic Ocean. Researchers from Wageningen University and Research and the University of Groningen will be on board and will carry out research on the Polarstern. With this Mosaic expedition, the Netherlands is participating in a total of three projects, which are funded by NWO.

The first leg of the MOSAiC expedition was completed in the middle of December 2019. Crew members and scientist of the second leg are on board now and working hard to continue the work after celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve on board together. Leg 2 is the darkest and coldest one of them all.

At the end of January, Polarstern, from the Alfred Wegener Institute, was about 300 kilometers on the Russian side of the geographical North Pole. It is hypothesized that at the end of summer 2020 the ship will lie somewhere between Greenland and Iceland as a result of sea currents, and that it will be released from the ice.

EM 1 f33b6496 ed40 4ac8 af5e d449bd6a7497 Foto 1 8d8b3596 530x351Giulia Castellani, here drilling ice cores curing last year’s Antarctic expedition PS117 (Photo: Susanne Kühn)

For most of January 2020, the Polarstern was farther away from civilization than the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of ~400 km (~250 miles) above the Earth's surface.

ICEFLUX colleague currently on board

On board is AWI (Alfred Wegener Institute) colleague Giulia Castellani. As a physicist, she has been working in the joint Wageningen Marine Research and AWI ICEFLUX projects for many years. In these projects she has been investigating the properties of sea ice in the polar oceans and the link of these properties with the in-ice and under-ice ecosystems. During previous Polarstern expeditions AWI and Wageningen Marine Research conducted together (including last year’s Antarctic expedition PS117, Castellani collected data on sea-ice properties using sensors on both the ice and on the SUIT (Surface and Under Ice Trawl). She also worked as a biologist, processing the catch collected using various types of fishing gear. These skills will come in handy as she is currently working on collecting zooplankton and fish samples in the Arctic region during the second leg of the MOSAiC expedition.

EM 2 2ab8c58c 8952 441e ba7f 3ec9bcf53dca Foto 2 48cb8319 530x353The icebreaker Captain Dranitsyn arrives at Polarstern to exchange people on board (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute/Esther Horvath)

The participants of leg 2 of the MOSAiC expedition arrived at Polarstern on board the Russian Icebreaker Captain Dranitsyn. Cold conditions do not make the work very easy. To protect it from freezing, sampling gear has to be insulated before going into the water and when coming out. The temperatures often fall below -30°C. Due to the cold, the holes through which different gears are deployed freeze shut and have to be opened up again before the work can start. Despite hardships the people stay positive.

“Experiencing Arctic winter is simply amazing and we all enjoy the work,” says Castellani.

EM3 46cce945 5e47 47f2 9d39 00a2152a8ce5 Foto 6 efa93b14 530x397In the ice camp a fishing net is attached to an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to sample zooplankton directly underneath the ice. The permanent hole in the ice is covered by a tent (Photo: Eric Brossier)


Apart from the temperatures there are many challenges the people on board face. Many of these challenges were already encountered during the first leg. The sea ice was thin, highly dynamic and constantly in motion. This caused both the formation of cracks as well as the formation of ice stacks due to ice floes pressing against each other. These are dangerous for the instruments on the ice, which can be covered with ice or lost. Especially cracks can also be very dangerous for the people working on the ice. In addition, the ice camp was visited by polar bears several times. Such situations sometimes make it necessary to evacuate the ice camp for short periods of time or make it impossible to go out. For most of the people on board Polarstern these challenges are not new, as the ship has been visiting the polar regions for years. Protocols are in place so that everyone’s safety is ensured. They do, however, delay the work.

Castellani: “Sometimes we are on stand-by for a couple of hours before we can start the work”.

During leg 1, the team also encountered a massive storm which, although impeding a lot of the work and causing damage to the ice camp, was seen as a great and unique opportunity to investigate the effect of storms on the Arctic climate system. During leg 2, no polar bears visited the ice camp so far, but there have been many visits from a polar fox who likes to taste power cables.

EM4 fc513666 00fc 4793 aad2 b525f5d0e575 Foto 8 0548152d 530x353Fishing with long lines (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute/Esther Horvath)


The ship and the ice camp already drifted approximately 200 kilometers towards the north pole. Castellani and colleagues have been working with different types of nets to collect zooplankton samples that can give an idea of their abundance and distribution. This information is necessary to fully understand the life cycle of different species and their contribution to the carbon cycle of the Arctic Ocean. This sampling is a continuation of the work initiated by the team during leg 1, who did a great effort of setting everything up and collecting the first samples.

Screen Shot 2020 01 31 at 10.16.59 AMIn addition to abundance and distribution, zooplankton species are sampled for different projects aiming to study their biology. This means that the people on board are also collecting many samples for researchers at home. “The complete sampling program is very extensive and sometimes needs adjustments considering the challenges we are facing”, explains Castellani. Not only zooplankton was collected during leg 1, but also fishes were caught with gear used in the ice camp. These fishes will be used for several projects including the Dutch Research Council (NWO) project on the role of sea ice in the life cycle of polar cod, which is carried out by Wageningen Marine Research.

Another project in which Wageningen Marine Research is involved is EFICA, an EU-funded project aiming to investigate the presence, size and role of fish stocks underneath the sea ice of the central Arctic Ocean. For this project, data on fish distribution will be collected using echo-sounders and a special camera, in addition to the fishing efforts.

logistic martin kuesting 01For more information, click here.

Story by Wageningen University and Research

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