Arctic odyssey ends, bringing home tales of alarming ice loss
The largest Arctic expedition in history will return to the German port of Bremerhaven on Monday after a one-year mission, bringing home the observations of scientists that the sea ice in the region is melting at "dramatic speed".
Due to the coronavirus restrictions, there won't be much fanfare when the Polarstern ship of the German Alfred Wegener Institute docks.
However, the information researchers gathered as the ship drifted through the ocean trapped in the ice will be vital in helping scientists understand the effects of climate change.
In the summer, the researchers convinced themselves of the dramatic effects of global warming on the ice in the region, which, according to mission leader Markus Rex, is considered the "epicenter of climate change".
"We could see long stretches of open water that came almost to the pole, surrounded by ice littered with holes created by massive melting," said Rex.
His sobering conclusion: "The arctic ice is disappearing at a dramatic speed."
- 'Magic moment' -
The researchers' observations were backed up by US satellite imagery showing that sea ice in the Arctic reached its second lowest summer minimum in 2020 after 2012.
The Polarstern mission, known as MOSAIC, collected data on the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice and ecosystems for 389 days to assess the effects of climate change on the region and the world.
To carry out the research, four observation points were set up on the sea ice within a radius of up to 40 kilometers around the ship.
The researchers collected water samples under the ice during the polar night to study plant plankton and bacteria and better understand how the marine ecosystem functions under extreme conditions.
The 140 million euro expedition will also bring more than 1,000 ice samples ashore.
With the end of the Odyssey, analysis of the samples and data retrieved or recorded on site will begin in earnest.
The analysis process will take up to two years to develop models that can be used to predict what heat waves, heavy rains or storms could look like in 20, 50 or 100 years.
"To build climate models, we need in-situ observations," Radiance Calmer, a researcher at the University of Colorado who was aboard Polarstern from June to September, told AFP.
The team used drones to measure temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed to create a picture of conditions in the area that will be "very useful in building a climate model," Calmer said.
The researcher shared her experience on the mission and said it was a "magical" moment to be able to walk on the ice and experience these conditions first hand.
"If you focus, you can feel it moving," she said.
"It's important to take the time to observe and not just focus on your work."
- 20 polar bears -
Since the ship left Tromsø, Norway, on September 20, 2019, the crew have experienced long months of complete darkness, temperatures as low as -39.5 degrees Celsius and around 20 polar bears.
The mission was almost derailed in the spring by the coronavirus pandemic. The crew had been stranded at the North Pole for two months when the borders were slammed.
A multinational team of scientists was to fly in as part of a planned relay to relieve those who had already spent several months on the ice. However, the plan had to be redrawn when flights around the world were canceled as governments scrambled to stop the coronavirus from spreading.
During the expedition, several hundred researchers from 20 countries spent time aboard the German ship, which was traveling with the ice on a wind-powered route known as transpolar drift.
The trip was a major logistical challenge, not least when it came to feeding the crew. In the first three months, the shipload comprised 14,000 eggs, 2,000 liters of milk and 200 kilograms of rutabaga.
The ship's cook Sven Schneider did not underestimate the importance of his role in the mission.
"It was my job to maintain the morale of 100 people who live in complete darkness," he said in an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
yap-fec / hmn / tgb
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