How to Park a Ship in Ice


Scientists will moor ship in Arctic ice for a year to better understand climate change.

Loaded with research equipment and international scientists, the RV Polarstern icebreaker is steaming towards the central Arctic, searching for the perfect parking spot next to an ice floe.

This patch of ice is the star of the MOSAiC show: it’s where hundreds of scientists will live and work for 13 months as part of the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition. The ice must be thick enough to support the weight of people and instruments—yet thin and dynamic enough to fuel interesting science. It needs to stay intact for the duration of the year, without breaking up. And it shouldn’t drift into areas where countries have restricted research access.

“We need a chunk of ice that strikes that perfect balance: not too thick, but not too thin,” said Matthew Shupe, MOSAiC co-lead and a CIRES/NOAA scientist whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. “The thin ice is what we really want to study scientifically—but we also need to make sure everyone stays safe.”

The ideal patch of ice is stable—around 1.2 meters (4 feet) thick and 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide—and lies close to other sections of thinner ice and areas of open water, Shupe said. This minimizes the risk of the ice collapsing while still providing scientists with dynamic surroundings so they can study topics such as how ocean-atmosphere interactions change when ice thickens or how freezing impacts the tiny creatures living in the upper surface of the ocean. To answer these questions, Shupe and his colleagues will be drilling ice cores, setting up ocean sensors, operating unmanned aircraft in the skies above the ship, and more.

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