Thayer researchers embark on historic Arctic expedition

September 23, 2019

No place on Earth is warming—and melting—as fast as the Arctic. In a race against time, Dartmouth engineers have joined researchers from around the world on the largest polar expedition in history to better understand the scale of climate change and what that means for our planet.

Professor Donald K. Perovich is an expert on Arctic sea ice science and climate change, and has led previous expeditions to measure sea ice melt in the Artic.

The “Multidisciplinary-drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate” (MOSAiC) expedition, which set sail from Tromsø, Norway on Sept. 20, marks the first time a global team of researchers will live on a research icebreaker vessel for an entire year to gather data about the changing Arctic climate, the shrinking sea ice, and the impact on polar marine life.

“The threats posed to the planet from global climate change are real—and they are coming on fast,” said Donald Perovich, professor of engineering at Dartmouth 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, Dartmouth engineering graduate students Ian Raphael ’18 and David Clemens-Sewall ’14, and Dartmouth engineering adjunct professor Christopher Polashenski ’07 Th’07 Th’11, a research geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), will be part of a global team on the MOSAiC expedition.

Throughout the upcoming year, Perovich, Raphael, Clemens-Sewall, and Polashenski, along with rotating crews of 300 researchers will call the Polarstern, a German research icebreaker, its home base. Each will take part in alternating legs of the expedition—with each leg expected to 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, and once entrapped, will drift with the floe as it tracks across the Arctic.

Currently aboard the Polarstern for the expedition’s first leg is Raphael, who described the MOSAiC mission as essential to understanding what’s truly at stake for our planet. Previous expeditions were smaller in scope and data collected during short-term field research is not nearly enough to gain a more holistic understanding of the changing climate or its impact, he said.

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

Raphael and Clemens-Sewall have spent months preparing for the expedition, but so much of what they face is still an unknown. They know that the expedition will involve conducting research in some of the world’s harshest conditions—for instance, sub-freezing temperatures and polar nights that can stretch longer than 24 hours. When something breaks, they won’t have the convenience of a lab or machine shop nearby for spare parts.

“Due to logistical and scientific constraints, there is much we don’t know about processes in the Arctic,” said Clemens-Sewall. “The multidisciplinary approach and superior logistical support will enable us to learn more about the Arctic and help us predict future climate change.”

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.

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

The mission, which has been 10 years in the making, “could not come at a more important time,” Perovich said. “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.”

Follow Dartmouth engineering researchers on MOSAiC Polarstern’s drift route live on the webapp: follow.mosaic-expedition.org