Polarstern Turns 40

Alfred Wegener Institute Honours Icon of German Polar Research
[08. December 2022] 

9 December 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the research icebreaker Polarstern’s commissioning. Built by a consortium combining the shipyards Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft in Kiel and Werft Nobiskrug in Rendsburg, the Alfred Wegener Institute’s flagship has successfully completed more than 130 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic and offered a temporary home for thousands of researchers from Germany and around the globe. In the process, the Polarstern has safely traversed 1.8 million nautical miles. The ship is currently on an expedition in the Southern Ocean.

Whether it’s for the recent Climate Change Conference, ongoing United Nations Biodiversity Conference, the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, or efforts to establish the world’s largest Marine Protected Area in the Antarctic Weddell Sea: the expertise of researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) is in high demand at international negotiations. In many cases, that expertise is based on what they’ve learned on Polarstern expeditions.

The ship gained far more attention thanks to the MOSAiC expedition, during which it drifted through the Arctic, intentionally frozen to an ice floe, from September 2019 to October 2020. During this international drift expedition near the North Pole, the Polarstern served as the central observatory and home for more than 400 people, while bringing back an unprecedented treasure trove of data from the epicentre of climate change. This one-of-a-kind research icebreaker has also unlocked many more secrets of the polar regions. For example, researchers on board were for the first time able to describe explosive volcanism under the ice and confirm the presence of black smokers in the Arctic – hydrothermal deep-sea vents that are home to unique biotic communities. The discovery of the world’s largest known spawning ground in the Antarctic Weddell Sea, and the observation of large pods of whales working together to hunt krill in the Southern Ocean, were true media sensations.

When it came to planning the Polarstern’s successor, integrating cutting-edge underwater technologies was a major factor: after 40 years in service, despite the best maintenance efforts, the Grande Dame will soon have to be replaced. In the federal budget approved in summer 2022, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research gave the AWI the means to initiate an EU-wide call for tenders for the construction of a new research icebreaker. The successor ship will tentatively be commissioned in 2027. Much to the delight of the polar research community, the new Polarstern will also be a paragon of sustainable shipbuilding and the use of regenerative energy in shipping.

“We love our Polarstern, who has provided a safe haven for so many people in extreme conditions, and we wish her all the best on her 40th birthday,” says AWI Director Prof Antje Boetius. “To ensure that the AWI can continue to pursue its research mission in the coming decades, ones which will be decisive for the future of our planet, we are of course very pleased that the Polarstern will soon have a worthy successor: a modern ship that will be able to operate in the Arctic and Antarctic under all ice conditions and allow researchers to bring back observations and data from those regions hardest-hit by climate change. Society urgently needs these findings in order to make the right choices when it comes to preserving the climate, environment and natural resources – for the future of the polar regions, the biodiversity on land in the sea, and for future generations.”

The new ship will also – just like the first Polarstern – serve as a supply vessel for the Neumayer Station in the Antarctic. In the original planning, 40 years ago, the combination of research and supply vessel was a priority. Cranes that can lift several-metric-ton containers or snowcats for the Antarctic station on the 20-metre-tall sea-ice edge in Atka Bay were just as important as the ship’s icebreaking capacity. Back in 1981, operating a permanently manned Antarctic station was the basis for the Federal Republic of Germany attaining consultative status in the Antarctic Treaty System. But that’s not all: the Polarstern made it possible to explore the ocean surrounding Antarctica, whereas many other countries limited their research activities to the southern continent.

In the years that followed, the AWI established a time series in the Weddell Sea that offers insights e.g. into deep-water formation, a process that drives global ocean currents. How warm water flows below the massive ice sheets of the Antarctic, melting them from below, was also studied on Polarstern expeditions. The AWI is currently working on an Antarctic strategy that will place even greater focus on researching the Southern Ocean in international cooperation with a multidisciplinary approach. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Polarstern helped the AWI to construct the world’s first and only long-term observatory in the Arctic deep sea: the AWI Hausgarten, first planned more than 20 years ago. Having since been supplemented with mobile components like ROVs, AUVs, ice buoys and gliders, together with a network of deep-sea moorings in the Arctic it forms the FRAM infrastructure, which allows data to be gathered year-round.

The ship is currently northeast of the Islas Georgias del Sur / Island of South Georgia, where an international team led by AWI geochemist Prof Sabine Kasten recently investigated biogeochemical material flows from the island’s glaciers into fjords and the open ocean. “We’re very pleased that, thanks to the Polarstern, we were able to weather the adverse conditions produced by the ‘furious fifties’ in the Southern Ocean and, in just two weeks, to successfully visit more than 50 sites in our study area,” says the expedition leader. “Together with the crew from Reederei Laeisz under Captain Moritz Langhinrichs, we’re celebrating the Polarstern’s 40th birthday with a festive reception and get-together in the ship’s Blue Saloon,” reports Sabine Kasten. “On behalf of the entire research team, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Captain Langhinrichs and the ship’s crew for their impeccable support and the wonderful atmosphere they created on board.”

As of today, Polarstern has travelled more than 1.8 million nautical miles (nearly 3.5 million kilometres) – mathematically speaking, the equivalent of circling the Earth at the Equator nearly 86 times. Her next destination is Cape Town, South Africa, where shortly before Christmas a new research team will depart on a geoscientific expedition to the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas, resupplying the Neumayer Station III along the way. The Polarstern is expected to return to her home port, Bremerhaven, in mid-April 2023.

On the occasion of the birthday there is an animated 3-D ship tour for Polarstern fans: https://polarstern-3d.awi.eventfive.de/?lang=en