After years of planning and days of travel, a team of scientists and technicians from Los Alamos National Laboratory at last have made it to the top of the world, that snow desert known as the Arctic.
As the team emerges from the comfort of the research ship R/V Polarstern, they are struck by the unforgiving cold, which during winter reaches minus-58 degrees. This is the place of the midnight sun and polar night, where it’s often difficult to discern land from water because of the ice and snow that sit above it, and where polar bears and arctic foxes are the solitary creatures.
Despite the destitute location and uninviting climate of the Arctic, people have always been drawn to this desolate place. Explorations go as far back as 325 B.C., when a Greek expedition led by Pytheas made it to the frozen sea while searching for tin.
Countless other expeditions have followed. Lately, humanity has come to the Arctic to seek answers to how and why the Earth’s climate works the way it does. For example, five years ago Russian scientists used drift stations — research camps aboard large floating slabs of ice — to study the nature of climate and how it has evolved on Earth.
Another such effort is the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC. The largest expedition ever conducted in the Arctic, MOSAiC consists of more than 600 researchers from over 60 institutions from 20 different countries. The base of operations is the icebreaker R/V Polarstern, which has intentionally frozen itself into the polar ice cap. Over the next year, the icebreaker will drift with the natural flow of the ice while researchers conduct the most intensive research ever performed in this critical but poorly understood region.
Such scientific work has the potential to unravel the Arctic’s secrets regarding how it responds to a changing environment, and critically, how it affects weather patterns in the rest of our world.
Divided into six two-month legs, researchers serve stints at MOSAiC tackling various subjects, such as measuring the amount of sea ice, studying ocean currents, using robotic submarines to investigate what lies under the ice, performing biological and ecological research, and studying the Arctic’s atmosphere.
The Los Alamos team supports the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility, which provides the research community with observations of Earth’s atmosphere. Such observatories are already in place in the Southern Great Plains in Oklahoma, the Eastern North Atlantic, and the North Slope of Alaska.
As part of MOSAiC, the team’s objective is to install and operate a suite of instruments that collect data 24 hours a day, rotating fresh team members onto the ship during each subsequent leg. In addition to the writer of this article, others participating in the first leg of the MOSAiC expedition in various capacities were Paul Ortega of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos subcontractors Vagner Castro, Steele Griffiths and Juarez Viegas.
The instruments measure the properties of clouds, solar radiation, heat fluxes, precipitation and aerosols (tiny particles in the air). The collected data will help scientists better understand the processes that control the Earth’s overall energy balance and will enable them to create computer tools to better predict future climate.
Once the voyage is underway, what may sound like an easy task soon turns daunting, as the unforgiving arctic cold, unpredictable winds and curious and destructive polar bears make maintaining the equipment a chore.
During their stay, the Los Alamos team learns how to navigate the Arctic, where objects that seem only minutes away are actually hours away and where they are careful to take precautions for traveling over the ice.
Then there are the polar bears, which show little fear of approaching the R/V Polarstern — the huge ship with a nonstop kitchen proves an irresistible attraction for these curious animals. With more than three decades of experience in the Arctic, R/V Polarstern staff have a number of methods for tracking the bears and encouraging them to move along from the research area. This includes infrared cameras, fireworks-type deterrent and professionally trained guards. Many of the researchers take turns monitoring for polar bear activity.
After a day of hard work in the bitter cold temperatures of the Arctic, the team returns to R/V Polarstern for a night of relaxation. As they remove their weather gear, they are met with yet another surprise: Their clothes are lined with sweat from the day’s exertion.
At the end of two months, the Los Alamos team members agreed that they would return, and indeed some team members will be back for another two-month leg. The sense of adventure has a strong appeal, as does the lure of learning what is happening with the Earth’s climate and how science can better predict changes in the near and far future.
David W. Chu is a research technologist for the Earth Systems Observations group at Los Alamos National Laboratory and is a member of the Los Alamos team on the R/V Polarstern.