Expedition to the Arctic provides new answers

Among polar bears and splitting ice floes, three heads of research from the University of Gothenburg are exploring the Arctic in pursuit of new knowledge. Each of them is taking part in a separate phase of the extensive MOSAiC expedition to the Arctic. The goal of the expedition is to gather better climate data.

Arctic Ocean, April 2020. For two months, the marine polar researcher Adam Ulfsbo has been surrounded by pack ice, with a large number of international researchers, on the German research icebreaker Polarstern. He often spends his days out on the drifting ice floes, measuring carbon dioxide and ocean acidification. In the midst of strong winds and biting cold. 

When he arrived in February, it was dark around the clock, and the temperature was below -40°C. Now the sun has risen and the polar night has given way to the midnight sun. Adam is enjoying it.

“The temperature is a bit more forgiving now, only 10-30 degrees below zero. That helps when you are out working on the ice,” he says.

Adam Ulfsbo is taking part in MOSAiC, the world’s biggest ever Arctic expedition. Researchers from around 20 countries are carrying out unique studies of the air, ice, and ocean. Besides the University of Gothenburg, a number of European, American, and Asian higher education institutions are involved.

Beautiful sunrise scenery in the Arctic landscape. A giant icebreaker vessel in front is faces the light, stuck in the ice.

A total of 900 persons from 20 countries participates in the expedition, during which the German icebreaker “Polarstern” is stuck in Arctic ice.

The MOSAiC expedition will run for 13 months. At the fixed monitoring stations, the teams of researchers have installed a full range of instruments, seagoing vessels and even a snow cat. The entire expedition package, including the icebreaker, is frozen solid in an ice floe and literally going with the flow. Just like Fridtjof Nansen in the 19th century.

It is also unique for a major Arctic expedition to run for an entire winter, according to marine researcher Katarina Abrahamsson, who took part in the first phase of MOSAiC.

“We have more or less only had summer data to work from previously. Russian researchers have winter monitoring stations, but their data is classified as confidential, so we can’t use it,” she says.

In the Arctic, she measured how ozone-depleting bromine compounds are spread from the winter ice. This was partly to find out whether the process works in the same way as in the southern hemisphere, where she has previously traced the spread of these substances.

Like other polar research, Katarina’s work also has a bearing on climate issues. Expanding the fact base for climate change is one of the overall objectives of the MOSAiC expedition – at both the regional and global levels.

“The effects of climate change are visible earlier in the Arctic and more clearly than anywhere else. The research results from the expedition will give us more reliable data and may also help to make better climate models,” she says.

To demonstrate the change, she usually shows NASA’s video of the thickness of the ice from 1984 to  2016. It is shockingly clear. As the voiceover states drily, the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, has gone from nursery to cemetery for the thick ice.

When the ice disappears, a larger proportion of the sun’s heat is also absorbed by the sea. This is because the dark seawater has a higher absorption capacity than sea ice (93% compared with 15%), according to the Arctic Council’s Monitoring and Assessment Programme. The consequence is that the surface temperature of the sea rises, sea ice formation decreases and deformation (melting) increases.

At 1984, most of the Arctic was covered in thick and old ice. Just a slice of the same type remains in 2016.

The Nasa film ”Disappearing Ice” demonstrates how the thick ice of the Arctic Ocean shrinks in 32 years. The brightest white areas indicates where the thickest and oldest ice was situated.

However, no one should think that the Arctic Ocean is a pleasant place to be. Many famous explorers have lost their lives, frozen in the ice or trying to rescue companions in trouble. All MOSAiC researchers have to learn to guard against the hazards. They learn to deal with the cold, the icy wind, and the risk of freezing. To keep their head while pulling themselves up out of a hole in the ice. And how to shoot a polar bear if absolutely necessary.

“I’m not much of a shot, so others had to watch out for polar bears,” says Katarina Abrahamsson.

However, she was not particularly afraid – of either polar bears or holes in the ice.

“We saw a few polar bears, but I didn’t feel afraid. Unfortunately, they are a bit of a problem as they like gnawing on the instruments,” she says.

It was worse when another problem arose, the Covid-19 pandemic. The entire MOSAiC expedition was on the verge of stopping in March. The spread of the disease caused the Swedish icebreaker Oden to cancel its participation, and the Norwegian ports shut down. There is still considerable uncertainty, but the expedition management have so far handled all the challenges, such as by deploying two German backup vessels. The phase that Adam Ulfsbo is involved in has been extended by a few months. This does not bother him all that much.

“Research expeditions to polar regions are always open-ended until they have been completed. The pandemic has caused us delays, among other things. Of course, I think a lot about my family and friends when I am so far away,” says Adam.

Two polar bears shows interest in field station flags in the dark. They are discovered by spotlights.

Polar bear female with cub visiting the “Polarstern”.

MOSAiC’s last phase will run from August until 12 October. Another researcher from the University of Gothenburg, Céline Heuzé, plans to be on board. Céline has been involved in the expedition for a long time as the group leader for Ocean, one of the five scientific focus areas of the expedition. She leads a research team of 50 people with very different backgrounds. The work entails new challenges every day in terms of the weather, the technology, and interpersonal relations.

“Coordinating experts from around the world is very demanding. Some might want a formal decision-making procedure, while others do not. Misunderstandings can easily arise. This is particularly apparent when we cannot contact each other,” says Céline.

Nevertheless the work is largely progressing. She is very pleased with her team, and feels comfortable with how the MOSAiC expedition is being managed.

“I like to know the facts, and prefer it when people say what they are thinking. I like German expeditions most of all. You always know what’s what,” she says and laughs.

Her own research, into the cause of rising temperatures in the Arctic Ocean, is currently being overshadowed by the planning work. But once she is on site, she will be able focus on underwater probes to measure temperature and salinity. During the expedition, she will also set out 20 probes on the ocean floor to collect data for many years.

“It will be exciting to see what they register about the ocean,” she says.

The MOSAiC expedition

Expedition dates: 20/9/2019–12/10/2020
Number of days: 390
Number of experts: 600
Support personnel: 300
Participating countries: 20
Polar bear watchers: 6
Estimated drift distance in the ice: 2,500 km
Lowest expected temperature: -45°C
MOSAiC is short for: Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate
Coordination: Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany
Swedish partners: University of Gothenburg, Stockholm University, Uppsala University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Swedish Polar Research Secretariat
Funding: Participating countries, up to 90% from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Budget: Over SEK 1.5 billion
Historical reference: Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition (1893–96).

Follow this link to visit the official homepage for MOSAiC

Why research in the Arctic?

  • Need for knowledge. The Arctic is relatively unresearched, especially during winter. What studies exist are also limited geographically. One third of field research in the region is based on just two areas. One is Abisko in Sweden.
  • Climate observations. Climate change is progressing faster in the Arctic. The annual increase in temperature is twice the global average. Some effects can therefore be observed there first, before they reach populated areas.
  • Climate impact. The most recent temperature increase in the Arctic changed air circulation patterns, resulting in more extreme weather throughout the northern hemisphere. The disappearance of the ice means a higher risk of rising sea levels.

Three voices on...

... polar research in Sweden. Where are the knowledge gaps in this field and what would you like to see more of? Do you think it is justified for Sweden to put time and resources into polar expeditions, and why?

Katarina Gårdfeldt
Director of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat

”There are many good reasons why Sweden should spend more resources on polar research and polar expeditions. The Arctic and the Antarctic are not isolated. They are affected by and affect the climate in the rest of the world. There is a great shortage of data and, as a result, big knowledge gaps. In addition, economic and political interest in the Arctic is growing, and in this context climate data is hard currency. Sweden has a long tradition as a polar nation. Our international voice on the climate is strong but it can be called into question if we don’t have the knowledge to back it up.”

Frida Bengtsson
Spokesperson on global ocean issues for Greenpeace Nordic

“I think that Sweden’s research and ambitions for the Arctic are a good thing. But we can do more for the Antarctic ecosystem. We are a polar nation with a research station at the South Pole, but very little research funding goes there. The research we conduct is valuable, in particular that done by the University of Gothenburg. But no one can research penguins by counting them every 50 years. Sweden is in all the Arctic organisations but has no one in the Antarctic working groups. Next year, Sweden will be chairing the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), so now is a good time to raise our level of ambition.”

Markku Rummukainen
Climate Adviser at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) and Sweden’s representative on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

”The IPCC assesses the results from international research in order to determine the state of knowledge on climate change once it has been established. In turn, this helps to identify new research topics and refine those that exist. For the polar regions, this includes how global heating affects greenhouse gas flows from permafrost areas and how stable large land ice sheets are when the temperature rises. Other examples are the ocean as a carbon sink, ocean currents, sea ice processes and the climate impact on ecosystems on land, at sea and in local communities.”

Research leaders from Gothenburg University

Katarina Abrahamsson

Is: Professor of Analytical and Marine Chemistry

In the news because: She took part in the first phase of the MOSAiC expedition.

MOSAiC project: Seasonal ice – a new source of ozone-depleting bromine compounds in the polar night (with post doc Patric Simoes Pereira). 

Adam Ulfsbo

Is: Researcher

In the news because: He is on board the research vessel Polarstern, although his phase should already have finished.

MOSAiC project: Processes and factors driving anthropogenic changes in carbon dioxide and ocean acidification in the new Arctic.

Céline Heuzé

Is: Associate Senior Lecturer in Physical Climatology

In the news because: She will take part in the last phase of the MOSAiC expedition, which is planned to start in August.

MOSAiC project: What is warming the deep Arctic Ocean?