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An Astounding Arctic Endeavor

September 17, 2020



      This is the first thing I saw when perusing the 50th anniversary issue of the Smithsonian magazine for April 2020. This eye-opening 10-page article (with spectacular photos) is titled, “The Ship in the Ice” and concerns a topic we’ve all been hearing about for years, e.g., global warming.

      Researchers extract cores from a stretch of newly frozen sea ice. In the polar darkness they use red light to minimize disturbing light-sensitive microbes

      After reading it four or five times I decided the only way to approach this 600+ word blog – and make it perfectly understandable – would be with bullets and bold lead-ins. So here’s the story.

      • The main characters in this blog are three females: (1) Jessie Creamean, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, (2) Esther Horvath, a documentary photographer who specializes in the polar regions and (3) Michelle Nijhuis, an award-winning science journalist who has written for National Geographic and the New York Times.
      • The main structures are: (1) a research vessel called the Polarstern that was deliberately frozen into a thick, sturdy ice floe (the Arctic is near the top of the world) and nicknamed the Fortress, (2) Ming City, one of four main research camps on the ice – power cables were installed between it and the ship, (3) sleds pulled by snowmobiles transported equipment. The main research sites were within half-a-mile of the ship, but others were as far away as 30 miles, plus (4) an ice-coring tent where the team spent many hours working hard.

      Polarstern, the research vessel that was deliberately frozen into a thick, sturdy ice floe

      • The weather was brutal and unpredictable. Fissures can form in the ice and block the way to established sites. This forced the researchers to find alternate routes. Temperatures can go to 20 degrees below zero. In November, a violent storm opened up a new crack between the ship and the floe, knocking over a 100 ft. tower and threatening to snap cables.
      • The animals want to know what’s happening. We’re talking about an adult male Polar bear who can weigh from 775 to 1,200 lbs. Periodically these guys want in on the action or maybe they’re just looking for dinner. This means that armed guards and a 360-degree infrared scanner must keep a vigilant lookout.

      A polar bear pays the scientists a visit that is not unexpected. Armed guards and a 360-degree infrared scanner keep a lookout.

      • This project is called MOSAiC (the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate). It has more than 300 researchers participating in a wildly ambitious, eye-wateringly expensive yearlong expedition.
      • The researchers hail from more than 70 institutions across 20 countries and, like the polar explorers of old, they are driven to understand one of the planet’s grandest, most mysterious and least hospitable regions.
      • The problem is this: over the past 30 years, the extent of Arctic sea ice in September (at the end of the summer melt) has declined by 30%. Since 2002, the record low for summer ice has been broken four times. In other words, warming leads to melting ice, which leads to more warming – promising more and swifter melting in the future.
      • Cooling the planet is important and the Arctic plays a major role. MOSAiC’s goal is to understand how the ice, atmosphere and ocean are interacting in a warming Arctic and how those dynamics affect climate change around the globe. MOSAiC is the largest polar expedition in history – or, a one-year expedition from 2019 to 2020.
      • Creamean spent nine weeks in the Arctic drawing cores out of the ice that were carefully sliced into sections. She is also studying the tiny organisms that live on the ice and in the surrounding sea. During long hours in the ice-coring tent she would step outside to take in the vastness of the Arctic night. In January 2020 she flew home hauling an Igloo cooler packed with samples of Arctic seawater, ice and air. Over the coming months, she’ll identify the bacteria and other organisms in her samples from their DNA. “It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s a crucial one,” she says.

      A sled with equipment heads towards the ship – all photos courtesy of Smithsonian magazine, April 2020, the 50th anniversary issue

      Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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