After 13 months of collecting data, history’s largest Arctic research expedition returned with grim news. “We witnessed how the Arctic Ocean is dying,” mission leader Markus Rex told Agence-France Presse. “We saw this process right outside our windows, or when we walked on the brittle ice.”
In September 2019, the research mission set sail on the German Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern ship from Tromsø, Norway. For 13 months, about 300 scientists from 20 countries were on board at various times. Known as the MOSAiC Expedition — Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate — the team followed in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893-1896 journey. But instead of traveling aboard an old wooden sailing ship like Nansen’s Fram, MOSAiC traveled via the Polarstern, a highly modern icebreaker designed for research.
The international scientists gathered information to better understand how the Arctic is weathering the climate crisis. Rex described this area as “the epicenter of climate change.” The crew hopes that the finding will help predict how heatwaves, storms, floods and fires will affect the Arctic’s future.
The researchers brought back over 1,000 ice samples and 150 terabytes of data about subjects such as Arctic clouds, biology, atmosphere, and ocean physics. It will take years, or even decades, to analyze all this intel. “We went above and beyond the data collection we set out to do,” said Melinda Webster, a sea ice expert from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Unfortunately, the expedition’s initial impressions of the situation were severe. “At the North Pole itself, we found badly eroded, melted, thin and brittle ice,” said Rex. The researchers experienced smooth sailing in some areas previously covered with ice. Rex predicts that Arctic summers will soon be ice-free if the planet’s warming trend continues.
The Polarstern’s Arctic voyage cost $177 million. Coronavirus upended the trip’s logistics, forcing scientists to end the mission earlier than planned.
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