Ship sets sail for year-long climate study in largest Arctic expedition in history

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A German icebreaker has set sail for a groundbreaking year-long international research project to understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic. 

RV Polarstern pulled out of the Norwegian port of Tromso late last month destined for an ice floe where it will drift for the next 13 months. During that time, more than 400 scientists from 19 countries, including many of the world’s top Arctic researchers, will use the ship as a research base. 

Known as the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), the US$150m project represents the largest shipborne polar expedition in history and a potential step-change in climate science. 

Led by German research center the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and supported by a number of international bodies including NASA and the European Space Agency, this is the first time a modern research icebreaker will stay within the direct vicinity of the North Pole year-round, including the six-month-long polar winter, during which time the research team will be in perpetual darkness.  

The Polarstern itself will serve as the hub around which the climate scientists will erect a base camp on the sea ice. From this, camp researchers will conduct experiments and collect data from the atmosphere, ice and ocean in order to understand better the physical, chemical and biological processes that drive the Arctic atmosphere and ecosystem.

The MOSAiC expedition’s launch came amid the UN Climate Action Summit in New York and worldwide protests calling for more action by political leaders to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

In a report produced for the summit, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spelled out the impact climate change is already having, noting that the five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the warmest on record. 

The impact on the Arctic has been even more severe, with the polar region warming at twice the rate of the global average. How this rapid warming will affect the rest of Earth is one of the key questions the MOSAIC scientists are hoping to answer, according to expedition leader Markus Rex. 

“There aren’t any reliable prognoses of how the Arctic climate will develop further or what that will mean for our weather,” said Rex. “Our mission is to change that.” 

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