The Research Vessel Polarstern has been underway in the Arctic and Antarctic for 40 years now, giving experts from around the globe the opportunity to safely and effectively conduct research in two of the most extreme regions on our planet. It was instrumental in the Federal Republic of Germany assuming a leading role in polar and marine research shortly after becoming a consultative member of the Antarctic Treaty. To ensure this research is also possible in the future, and at the highest scientific and technological level, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has enabled the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) to coordinate construction of a modern, high-performance and sustainable successor to the Polarstern, and to announce a corresponding call for tenders. Since the federal budget for 2022 was approved by the German Bundestag on 3 June 2022, the construction procurement procedure for Polarstern II could begin. The AWI promptly launched the Europe-wide procurement procedure so that the competitive bidding could start as the first step. Due to the secret and complex nature of the competition, further information on the status of the construction procurement procedure for Polarstern II is not expected before the end of 2023. The handover of the completed ship is slated for 2027. To make the transition as seamless as possible, the requisite classification of the Polarstern – i.e., its technical certification – is to be extended to the end of 2027.
As a research vessel and resupply ship for the Neumayer Station III in the Antarctic, the Polarstern is a central pillar of German polar research. Since her commissioning on 9 December 1982, the research flagship of the Federal Republic of Germany has travelled more than 1.8 million nautical miles – the equivalent of sailing around the Equator more than 82 times. Since 1981, the Federal Republic of Germany has been a consultative member of the Antarctic Treaty. The fact that Germany’s commitment to environmental and climate protection in the polar regions carries considerable weight among the member states is to a great extent due to the high standing enjoyed by its polar research and virtually unparalleled research platform. Thanks to a general overhaul from 1999 to 2001, despite her four decades of service, the Polarstern is still one of the most capable research vessels in the world. Most recently, she successfully completed the year-long drift expedition MOSAiC under the extreme weather and ice conditions near the North Pole.
To ensure that the AWI and the international research community can continue to pursue world-class polar and marine research in the decades to come – which will likely be critical ones for the future of our planet – the BMBF has agreed that the AWI issues the procurement procedure for the construction of a multifunctional icebreaking polar research and resupply vessel Polarstern II. The AWI will also oversee the construction and coordinate its commissioning after successful trials. Ultimately, the new icebreaker will completely replace the Polarstern. The Europe-wide procurement procedure with a competitive bidding (“EU-weites Ausschreibungsverfahren mit vorgeschaltetem Teilnahmewettbewerb”) will officially begin with the release of a corresponding announcement in the Official Journal of the European Union.
According to Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger: “I am delighted that the construction of the new Polarstern II can now proceed. This will allow German marine and polar research to seamlessly build on the successes of the original Polar-stern, like the MOSAiC expedition to the Arctic. The polar regions are an early-warning system for the impacts of climate change and offer us invaluable glimpses into the future of our climate and weather. Consequently, gaining a better understanding of the processes at work at the Earth’s poles is of existential importance. After all, excellent climate research is the basis for better climate protection. As a high-performance, sustainable research vessel, the Polarstern II will make an important contribution in this regard.”
“The goal of the new project is crystal clear: we want to construct a research ship that, just like its predecessor, offers a basis for the international research community and allows us to take the pulse of our planet, even in its most extreme regions,” says AWI Director Prof Antje Boetius. “In this regard, for Germany the new ship represents an important international contribution to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, so as to achieve the global sustainability targets defined in the UN’s Agenda 2030. Moreover, by using cutting-edge systems and climate-friendlier propulsion, the new Polarstern will serve as a role model for sustainability in shipping.”
Construction of the new research and resupply ship will be coordinated by a newly formed AWI project group led by aerospace engineer Detlef Wilde. “In nearly 40 years of service, the one-of-a-kind Polarstern consistently set high standards,” says Wilde. “Our goal is to surpass those standards and, with the Polarstern II, to give the scientific community a modern, high-performance and sustainable ship that will be a more than worthy successor.” Further, according to Wilde: “With the competitive bidding the first step of the procurement procedure will be taken. In this regard, issuing a Europe-wide procurement procedure is required by applicable law. Following the competitive bidding, the top candidates will be requested to submit an offer.”
The Polarstern II will make it possible for researchers from around the globe to gain critical insights – particularly from the polar regions – into the fundamental climate change our planet is now experiencing. The goal is to find solutions for preserving the ecological equilibrium of the polar regions and oceans for future generations. The requirements profile, which was jointly developed by the project group, future users and future operators, also reflects the lessons learned over the Polarstern’s nearly 40 years of service.
The Polarstern II will be capable of operating under changing ice and weather conditions, ensuring the AWI can reliably pursue its research mission – unravelling the complex processes at work in the Earth system, particularly in the cold and temperate regions of the world – for decades to come. The new research vessel, which, just like its predecessor, will bear the German state flag, will offer improved icebreaking performance, ensuring that it can penetrate the few regions (e.g. the southern Weddell Sea in the Antarctic) in which the ice is too thick for today’s Polarstern. The new Polarstern is to offer a service life of at least 30 years and be capable of overwintering in the ice. It must be able to transport cutting-edge heavy implements for drilling sediment cores and is to feature a “moon pool”: a sheltered hatch in the ship’s hull that will allow complex diving robots to launch below the ice.
“We need a ship that can operate under all ice conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, and which will allow researchers to gather observations and data from those regions hardest hit by climate change,” says Antje Boetius. “This will provide the basis for the critical insights our society so urgently needs in order to make the right choices when it comes to climate protection, environmental protection and nature conservation – to safeguard the future of the polar regions and biodiversity on land and in the sea for generations to come.”
Last but not least, the Polarstern II is intended to be a symbol of innovation and sustainability in research and must accordingly satisfy the highest energy-efficiency and environmental standards – e.g. significantly reduced nitrous oxide (NOx) and particle emissions, achieved using exhaust-gas aftertreatment and particle filters. At the same time, it must be ensured that the Polarstern II can be safely, efficiently and reliably operated in extreme regions far from any resupply options.
“Once the procurement procedure is completed and the winning bid has been selected by the AWI’s procurement office, construction is slated to commence at the winning shipyard in early 2023,” says Wilde. “Following extensive trial cruises, including in the ice, the new ship is planned to enter service in 2027.”