Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Climate Observatory: Adrift in the Arctic


Photograph by Stefan Hendricks.

Professor Donald Perovich and a team of Dartmouth researchers have joined others from around the world on the largest polar expedition in history to better understand the scale of climate change and what it means for our planet.

The Multidisciplinary-drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition set sail from Tromsø, Norway in September and marks the first time a global team of researchers will live on an icebreaker vessel for an entire year to gather data about the changing Arctic climate and its impact.

“The threats posed to the planet from global climate change are real—and they are coming on fast,” says Perovich, professor of engineering at Thayer and the expedition’s co-lead for sea ice research. “This study will be historic not only for its scale, but for its ability to allow us to understand the causes and consequences of changes in the Arctic.”

Along with Perovich, Thayer graduate students Ian Raphael ’18 and David Clemens-Sewall ’14, plus Christopher Polashenski ’07 Th’07 Th’11, an adjunct assistant professor at Thayer and a research geophysicist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, will be part of the global expedition.

Throughout the upcoming year, the four Thayer researchers and rotating crews of 300 researchers will call the German research icebreaker Polarstern home base. Each will take part in alternating legs of the expedition—with each leg expected to last two to three months. In a remote part of the Siberian Arctic, the Polarstern is expected to power down and wait for water to freeze around the vessel. Once entrapped, it will drift with the floe as it tracks across the Arctic.

All told, the $155-million expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, will involve a total of 600 international participants from 17 different countries. In addition to the Polarstern, an international fleet of four icebreakers, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft support the mission. The sea-based teams will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea.

Raphael is currently aboard the Polarstern for the expedition’s first leg, and he described the MOSAiC mission as essential to understanding what’s at stake for our planet. 

“Our climate models are informed in an enormous way by field data,” Raphael says. “MOSAiC is so critical because the sheer volume of data that we will collect simply isn’t feasible any other way.”

Perovich, Clemens-Sewall, and Polashenski will sail on later legs of the expedition. Raphael, who is expected to complete the first leg in December, will rejoin the Polarstern for a second time in August 2020 for MOSAiC’s final leg.

The mission, which has been 10 years in the making, “could not come at a more important time,” Perovich says. “The impacts of climate change are amplified in the Arctic, so this could be our best shot to explore the region while there is still time to assess and respond to change.”

—David Hirsch

Categories: The Great Hall, Groundbreaking, Research

Tags: arctic engineering, climate change, environment, faculty, innovation, research

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