Tag Archives: polarstern

Despite COVID-19 delays, UGA Skidaway Institute scientist heading home from the Arctic

After four months at sea, including two and a half months on board a German ice breaker locked in the Arctic ice cap, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Chris Marsay is on his way home. His return trip comes six weeks later than planned due to travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Chris Bundled

Chris Marsay, all wrapped up for working out on the ice during windy conditions.

Marsay has been on board the research vessel Polarstern as part of a major international research project to study climate change in the Arctic named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or “MOSAiC.” Last fall the Polarstern sailed into the Arctic Ocean until it became locked in the ice. The plan was for the ship to drift with the ice for a year all the while serving as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change. Scientists were scheduled in shifts or “legs” to work for two to three months at a time. However, unable to exchange the science teams by either air or with another ice breaker, MOSAiC organizers decided to pull the Polarstern out of the ice pack and leave the research station for an estimated three weeks while the changeover takes place.

“My time working at the MOSAiC ice floe has come to an end, and I am currently traveling south on the Polarstern towards Svalbard where the exchange between personnel from legs three and four of the project will take place,” Marsay said. “Due to the travel restrictions in place because of COVID-19, it was not possible to carry out the exchange at the ice floe itself as originally planned.”

The replacement team is already at Svalbard aboard two other German vessels. They completed a two-week quarantine and multiple coronavirus tests before departure. The teams will exchange ship-to-ship in a fiord since Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, is closed to outside visitors because of COVID-19.

According to Marsay, his time at the MOSAiC ice floe has been eventful. “The ice was much more dynamic than it had been during the first months of the MOSAiC project,” he said. “Cracks and leads frequently opened up in the area around the ship, and the ice movement also formed ridges of ice blocks several feet high.”

Ice Crack 650p

A crack that opened up next to the ship in mid-March meant that some equipment had to be hurriedly moved to safety.

All of these events restricted access to some research sites, but the work continued, providing new sampling opportunities for the researchers.

This was not Marsay’s first trip to the Arctic. A 2015 research cruise took him to the North Pole, but this trip was a new experience. “It’s been unique to witness the transition from winter to spring in the central Arctic Ocean,” he said. “During our time at the floe we experienced a minimum temperature of negative 40 degrees Celsius, not accounting for wind chill, and a maximum of zero degrees Celsius. The sun did not rise until two weeks after we arrived at the floe, and has not set since late March.”

Marsay also experienced windy days with storm-force winds and whiteout conditions due to blowing snow, and days with beautiful clear skies when the sun reflecting off the snow was dazzling, he said.

Ship Blown Snow 650p

As calm conditions gradually return after a couple of days of windy conditions, Polarstern is visible through some blowing snow at ground level.

During his participation in MOSAiC, Marsay collected snow, ice cores, sea water and aerosol samples as part of our project studying the atmospheric deposition of trace elements in the central Arctic.

SkiDoo 600p

Each Monday, Marsay was part of a team that collected multiple ice cores at a site far enough away from the ship that a Ski-Doo and sledges were needed.

He also learned some new skills, including driving a Ski-Doo, and on several occasions he carried a rifle and served as a polar bear guard for colleagues.

Bear Tracks 480p

The researches had one polar bear visit (that they know of) during leg 3. These footprints within a couple of hundred yards of Polarstern.

“We on board will have been at sea for over four months by the time we get to Germany,” Marsay said. “When we started, the COVID 19 virus was not widespread outside of China.

“We have all been following the news from back home, and although we’re looking forward to getting home, everyone is expecting some initial difficulties getting used to the way that public life has changed while we’ve been away.”

UGA Skidaway Institute scientist to spend winter 2020 locked in Arctic ice

Cliff Buck

Spending the Christmas holidays and the better part of January and February on a ship frozen solid in the Arctic ice cap isn’t most people’s idea of a great way to spend the winter. However, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Cliff Buck is planning to do just that. Buck is part of a major, international research project named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or “MOSAiC.” The goal of the project is to sail the German ice breaker Research Vessel Polarstern into the Arctic Ocean until it becomes locked in the ice and leave it there for a year, all the while using it as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change.

Climate change is occurring at a higher rate in the Arctic than in other regions. That rate of change is not reflected well in climate change models, mostly due to the lack of year-round observations in the Arctic.

“We care about this because the Arctic is turning out to be one of the more sensitive parts of the planet when it comes to climate change,” Buck said. “It’s warming at rates much higher than other parts of the world, and as it warms, many things are happening, such as the reduction in the expanse of sea ice.”

Those changes have implications on the means and rates that materials flow into the region, which, in turn, affect plant and animal life. Buck’s role will be to monitor the atmospheric deposition of trace elements like iron. Trace elements appear in the ocean in minute concentrations — parts per billion or even parts per trillion. However, they play a key role in the growth of phytoplankton — the tiny marine plants that form the very base of the marine food web and produce approximately half the oxygen in our atmosphere. In much of the world’s ocean, it is the presence or scarcity of iron that regulates the growth of phytoplankton.

Buck and his colleagues hope to develop a better understanding of how trace elements make their way from the upper atmosphere to the ice cap. They can arrive either as little particles, floating in the atmosphere and settling like dust, or they can fall as part of a raindrop or snowflake.

“In the Artic, the composition and abundance of aerosols tend to vary seasonally which is the reason it is important to get a series of observations over a long time scale to see how deposition rates of these aerosols change over the course of a year,” Buck said. “We care about that because in areas removed from river input and other continental influences, atmospheric deposition can be the primary source of trace elements like iron for the surface ocean.”

Buck and colleagues from Florida International University and Florida State University will use a technique utilizing a radioactive isotope of beryllium, itself a trace element, to measure the rate of atmospheric deposition. Beryllium-7 is created only in the upper atmosphere by the exposure of nitrogen and oxygen to cosmic rays, and has a half-life of 53 days. By measuring the concentration of beryllium-7 in samples, Buck will be able to estimate the rate beryllium and other trace elements are being deposited on the surface.

R/V Polarstern
Photo credit: Stephanie Arndt/Alfred Wegener Institute

The research team will take turns working on the ship in shifts of two months at a time. As many as 40 to 50 scientists might be on the R/V Polarstern during each shift, collecting samples and making a wide range of observations throughout the year. Buck is tentatively scheduled to be on board from mid-December 2019 through mid-February 2020.

“I really have no one to blame but myself for being assigned a winter shift,” Buck said. “It is very difficult to make these measurements during the winter, so it is very important to us to insure those winter samples are collected properly. When I said that out loud, they said ‘so I guess you want to go in the winter.’”

Although locked in the Arctic ice cap, the R/V Polarstern will not be stationary. The area where the researchers anticipate the ship will be frozen is subject to a surface current called the Transpolar Drift which propels sea ice from the East Siberian Sea to the Fram Strait, off the east coast of Greenland. The R/V Polarstern could drift as much as 1,500 miles during its year locked in the ice cap.

“The Arctic Ocean is a very interesting place with a lot of wind and a lot of physics going on up there,” Buck said. “You may not perceive the movement, but you will be moving.”

Buck’s participation in the MOSAiC project is funded by a four-year, $350,412 grant from the National Science Foundation Arctic System Science Program.