Aug. 15, 2019

Uncharted waters: Drifting ship trapped in Arctic ice to explore climate change

An international consortium of scientists is planning a massive Arctic expedition to gather as much data as possible related to climate change in the region. The project is designed to shed new light on how our planet's climate systems interact.

It’s the biggest Arctic expedition ever. The stakes are enormous. Planned to launch in September as scientists from around the world prepare to spend a year aboard a drifting ship trapped in Arctic ice, the collaborative MOSAiC project that includes University of Calgary researchers is set to revolutionize climate research.

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) project is meant to contribute a quantum leap in our understanding of the climate system and its representation in global climate models. 

At the very least, the massive amount of data to be collected will inform scientists’ urgent need to understand the effects of climate change. Reports and white papers to follow will put the Arctic, where climate change appears to be happening the fastest, beneath an increasingly heated media spotlight.

“We like to think of the Arctic as being a bellwether of climate change,” says Dr. John Yackel, PhD, a professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts, who's involved in the project. He’s an expert in sea-field ice research and remote sensing. “The region is kind of a canary in a coal mine, given the number of climate feedback processes that operate there.” 

An international consortium of leading polar research institutions designed the project, whose budget exceeds $181 million. Data gathered during the expedition is expected to provide new insights into the interactions between the ocean, ice and the atmosphere. 

“The project is trying to better understand the ocean, the earth’s atmosphere, the effects on snow and ice properties, and how those properties in turn affect the marine ecosystem – that includes everything from fish to polar bears,” says Yackel.

Aside from its consistent newsworthiness regarding climate change, the Arctic has been on the world stage in recent months for claims to territory by the U.S., drawing Russia, China and Canada into the fray.

Yet, the collaboration among scientists from so many different countries shows a unity of purpose in advancing global warming science.

The 120-metre-long research ship named the Polarstern will do a 2,500-kilometre trip, drifting in sea ice at the top of the world. It is, in effect, a huge platform for various investigations and tasks, a kind of floating hotel and observatory. The centrepiece is a ship-based ice camp with comprehensive instrumentation. 

The year-long voyage will see a total of 600 people from 17 countries (including Canada, Germany, the U.S., Russia and China) on board, as people are moved in and out in phases, 80 at a time. Icebreakers and aircraft are part of the project, providing supplies and support. 

People aboard will observe the atmospheric and oceanic processes that affect the sea ice. It will remain seasonal throughout the year-long experiment. 

While processes in the Arctic regions are understood to influence climate there and elsewhere in the world, much needs to be learned, say scientists.

“The information that will be gathered will shed light on how various components of this ice and ocean ecosystem are working,” says Yackel, among the hundreds of the project’s co-principal investigators. 

Yackel and supervisee Mallik Sezan Mahmud, a UCalgary doctoral student and Vanier Scholar who expects to spend time on the ship, will be providing high-resolution remote sensing data on how the snow-covered sea ice geophysical processes change from winter to summer.  

Mahmud’s research aims to support the development of novel sea ice products such as next generation satellites for improved Arctic sea ice monitoring and safer maritime operations. 

MOSAiC observations will serve as a test bed for models at many scales, which can lead to improving the testing and predictability of Arctic climate processes. Throughout the voyage and after, the studies will feed into improved global climate models, which will better show how the ice cover is transforming under a warming Arctic. 

Though the Arctic is the focus, the scope of the expedition is much broader. 

As scientists address questions regarding the role of the Arctic as a kind of global energy sink, they’ll consider the manner in which global patterns are affected by a changing Arctic ice pack — and the impacts these changes have on circulation and weather in the lower latitudes. 

Melting permafrost, glaciers and climate change effects are all under consideration. 

“If we can better understand how climate changes occur in the Arctic, we can better help the economies and people in more southerly regions who are influenced by the conditions and weather,” says Yackel. 

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Dr. John Yackel, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. John remains active in sea ice research and is an annual participant of the Collaborative-Interdisciplinary Cryospheric Experiment (C-ICE) in the Canadian High Arctic. He is currently a co-principal investigator on several national and international climate change related projects to use remote sensing for examining Arctic sea ice - climate processes. Read more about John

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