MOSAiC aerial campaign: first aerial survey flights in the Arctic since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic

German polar research aircraft launch from Svalbard to conduct aerial surveys of the sea ice and atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean
[31. August 2020] 

Following a five-month mandatory delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, on August 30th the two German polar research aircraft Polar 5 and Polar 6 will launch from Svalbard to conduct their first aerial survey flights over the Arctic this year. The flights, which will extend far into the Central Arctic, will support the investigation of the atmosphere and sea ice, and supplement the MOSAiC expedition’s extensive research agenda. Core research priorities include cloud formation over the Arctic Ocean and the question as to whether the sea ice observed during MOSAiC was generally thicker or thinner than in the past two decades, and how the unseasonably high summer temperatures affected Arctic ice cover. 

Originally four aerial campaigns were planned during the MOSAiC expedition – two in the spring, and two in the summer. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the spring flights had to be cancelled. Accordingly, the 26 researchers and technicians involved in the flights can’t wait to get started. “We’re extremely relieved that our two summer campaigns are going to continue despite the coronavirus pandemic, and we’d like to thank both the Government of Norway and the Governor of Svalbard in advance for the great collaboration. Without their support, a research undertaking of this scale simply wouldn’t have been possible under current conditions,” says atmospheric researcher and campaign leader Dr Andreas Herber from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).

How do clouds form in the Arctic?

The German research aircraft Polar 5 and Polar 6 are the first two ‘foreign’ aeroplanes on Svalbard since the lockdown. Based at Svalbard Airport, they will fly over the Central Arctic, with each flight taking between four and five hours. The readings taken will focus on two key scientific questions: the participating atmospheric researchers want to better understand how clouds form over the Arctic Ocean, and what part aerosol particles and eddies play in the process. To help them do so, the experts have equipped Polar 5 with a diverse range of meteorological instruments, including a LIDAR system, a photometer and numerous radiometers. 

Thanks to previous research, we now know that clouds are essential to the rapid warming of the Arctic. But modern atmospheric models tend to underestimate clouds’ influence and aren’t yet able to simulate it accurately. Consequently, the team of researchers, hailing from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), the Universities of Leipzig, Bremen and Cologne, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), will conduct large-scale surveys of the air masses over the Arctic Ocean and examine all factors that are relevant for cloud formation in detail. In addition, the plan is for the aircraft to follow the same route as the research icebreaker Polarstern; this approach will allow the data gathered in the air to complement the MOSAiC research conducted on board the ship and on the sea ice. 

In the next step, the new insights gained will be used to refine the atmospheric models currently in use. Moreover, the monitoring data will be used in the Collaborative Research Centre “Arctic Amplification (AC)3”, in the context of which a team of experts led by Prof Manfred Wendisch from the University of Leipzig have been exploring climate changes in the Arctic for the past four years. 

Was the ice encountered during MOSAiC generally thick or thin?

Whereas Polar 5 will focus on the atmosphere, the sea-ice physicists on board Polar 6 will concentrate on the thickness of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean. The self-declared goal of their campaign is to document the thickness and surface characteristics of sea ice in Fram Strait and the central Arctic Ocean. To do so, they’ll chiefly rely on the EM-Bird – a torpedo-shaped electromagnetic measuring system, which is towed behind and beneath the plane at a height of 15 metres. 

These ice-thickness measurements will form part of the long-term data programme IceBird, in the course of which AWI sea-ice physicists have surveyed the Arctic sea ice twice a year for nearly two decades – once at the end of the winter, when the ice reaches its maximum extent, and once in the summer, when it shrinks to its annual minimum. “This summer, there’s also the exciting question of whether the condition of the floes that were investigated during the MOSAiC expedition stands out in comparison to our long-term data. In other words: whether the ice was generally thinner or thicker than in the past; whether the high summer temperatures had any major effects on it; and whether the rapid drift led to an unusually high number of pressure ridges,” says AWI sea-ice physicist and IceBird campaign leader Dr Thomas Krumpen. 

Weather permitting, both aircraft were scheduled to begin their survey flights over the Central Arctic on Sunday, 30 August 2020. The experts are expected to return home in the third week of September.  

Background information on MOSAiC

In the context of MOSAiC, experts from 20 countries are researching the Arctic for an entire year. To make this possible, from autumn 2019 to autumn 2020 the German research icebreaker Polarstern will drift through the Arctic Ocean, trapped in the ice. MOSAiC is coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). To ensure that this unparalleled project is a success and yields as much valuable data as possible, more than 80 institutes have pooled their resources in a research consortium. The expedition budget is ca. 140 million euros.
For news straight from the Arctic, check out the MOSAiC channels on Twitter (@MOSAiCArctic) and Instagram (@mosaic_expedition) under the hashtags #MOSAiCexpedition, #Arctic and #icedrift. 
You can find further information on the expedition at:
Or you can use the MOSAiC Web-App to follow Polarstern’s drift route and events on site, live: