RV Polarstern – glimpses of its history

“Do we want a bucket or a solid, presentable ship for German Antarctic research?” When in July 1978 Bundestag parliamentarian Horst Grunenberg posed this question to Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor at that time, he laid the foundation for the success story of the research icebreaker Polarstern. That same night, in fact, the Chancellor doubled the planned investment amount for the research vessel. Dr. Christian Salewski, archivist at the archives for German polar research based at the Alfred Wegener Institute, has compiled this and other milestones of the over 30-year history of Polarstern. We document extracts from the chronicle.

In 1978 Germany’s Federal Government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt provided 110 million German marks in funding for the construction of a polar research vessel. The request for tenders for the ship’s construction opened in June 1979 and was based on tests conducted at the Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA).
Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (now ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems) in Kiel and Werft Nobiskrug in Rendsburg ultimately won the contract.

Political decisions concerning Polarstern

  • 13 February 1978 – Bremerhaven Bundestag parliamentarian Horst Grunenberg (1928-2006) demands an ice-going "ship that can meet both transport and research purposes" in a note to the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag.
  • 10 May 1978 – A meeting of representatives of various ministries at the then Federal Ministry of Research and Technology urges "a preference for a combined supply and research vessel having a high ice class".
  • 23 June 1978 – At the meeting of the German state committee of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) an Antarctic Vessel working group is formed. It is headed by the director of the Institute for Marine Research in Bremerhaven at that time, Sebastian Gerlach (1929-2010).
  • 26 - 28 July 1978 – The German Federal Government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt decides to provide DM 110 million (over 56 million euros) to build a ship for polar research.

Author: Christian Salewski


Before construction of the research icebreaker can commence, designs have to be drafted and different models have to be compared. Given that she is also expected to withstand journeys through pack ice, the ship’s structural integrity is a primary concern.

From 1980 to 1982, the consortium "Polar Research Ship" built the icebreaker with the support of the HSVA, the engineering firm Schiffko and the Central Office for Marine and Mechanical Engineering at the Waterways and Shipping Directorate North. Total construction costs amounted to 188 million marks (over 96 million euros).

Construction of Polarstern II


  • June 1979 – The invitation to tender for construction of the polar research vessel is based on studies by Hamburgische Schiffbau-Versuchsanstalt (HSVA). This research institute develops a new, significantly more expensive type of ship on that basis.
  • 30 August 1980 – Research Minister Volker Hauff (*1940) awards the construction contract for the vessel to the consortium “Polar Research Ship “ (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft – HDW – in Kiel and Werft Nobiskrug in Rendsburg).

Author: Christian Salewski

Keel layingNaming ceremonyCommissioning
22.09.1981 in Kiel25.01.1982 named „Polarstern“ 9. Dezember 1982 by German Federal Minister for Research Heinz Riesenhuber

Construction period

The new research icebreaker Polarstern’s first journeys take her to the Arctic and Antarctic – where she successfully braves the wind, waves, ice and snow. In 1985 the crew of the Polarstern even frees a British research ship trapped in the pack ice.

Operations 1982-1989

  • 9 December 1982 – RV Polarstern is taken over by Federal Research Minister Heinz Riesenhuber (*1935).
  • 27 December 1982 – RV Polarstern undertakes its first voyage in the Antarctic. Among other things, the ship is to transport material there for construction of Georg von Neumayer Station, an air chemistry laboratory and several snow vehicles.
  • October 1983 – The first AWI director and one of the first chief scientists on RV Polarstern, Gotthilf Hempel (*1929), assesses the first Antarctic voyage of the vessel positively in a lecture: "Without any failure in its vital parts the ship performed all tasks of the first Antarctic expedition."
  • 1983-1984 – On the first two Arctic voyages of RV Polarstern scientists on board the vessel take part in the international experiment MIZEX. The aim is to investigate physical processes and the marine biology ecosystem at the ice edge of the Greenland Sea.
  • 20 December 1985 – RV Polarstern frees the British research ship John Biscoe, which was enclosed in the pack ice.

Author: Christian Salewski

First operations and winter experiment

Though Germany has been reunited, there are still researchers at the GDR’s Georg Forster Station. The RV Polarstern retrieves the polar researchers, safely returning them to a now unified Germany.

Operations 1990-1999

  • 1990 - The ship picks up the crew of the GDR research station "Georg-Forster" and brings them back into the reunited Germany. The crew had left on 17.10.1989 and wintered there in the 1989/90 season.
  • 7 September 1991 – RV Polarstern reaches the geographic North Pole for the first time together with the Swedish icebreaker Oden.
  • 1993  - First winter expedition in the Arctic – RV Polarstern is the first foreign vessel to conduct scientific research off Franz Joseph Land and in the sibirian Laptev Sea.
  • 1998-2001 – As part of the overhaul programme “Midlife Conversion“, RV Polarstern is technically modernised after 16 years of operation. The complete overhaul can be carried out during ongoing operation with only brief dry dock periods.
  • January - March 1999 – The ship rescues, among others, Filchner Station, located on iceberg A-38 that broke off from the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf.

Author: Christian Salewski


In 2001 the RV Polarstern rendezvouses with the US research ship Healy and the icebreaker Oden in the middle of the Arctic Ocean: at 85° 30 N and 015°00’ E over the Gakkel Ridge.

Operations 2000-2010

  • November 2000 – The vessel takes part in the EisenEx experiment. The mission is to examine the extent to which algal growth in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current can be influenced by fertilisation with iron sulphate and what impact this growth has on the biosphere.
  • 23 August 2001 – RV Polarstern meets the US research vessel Healy and the icebreaker Oden in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at 85° 30 N and 015°00‘ E over the Gakkel Ridge.
  • 2004-2005 – In the framework of the ice station Polarstern experiment the ship is moored to an ice floe and drifts across the Weddell Sea for two months. Polar researchers are able to utilise the ice floe as a gigantic outdoor laboratory and study the local influences of the sea, the ice and the atmosphere on the Weddell Sea and global processes.
  • August - October 2008 – RV Polarstern is the first research vessel in the world to circumnavigate the North Pole. At the same time scientists study the bottom of the Arctic Sea.

Author: Christian Salewski

A summit of research vessels

In 2012, the research vessel Polarstern is 30 years old - but thanks to good care is still fit for the trip to the ice. Birthday spends the research icebreaker in the vastness of Antarctica. The public can visit the ship in June, before it traveled the southern hemisphere for a year and half.

Operations 2011-2015

  • 03.10.2011 – RV Polarstern returns from the “Trans-Arctic Survey of the Arctic in Transition” (TransArc) expedition, intended to record physical, biological and chemical changes in the Arctic Ocean. One highlight of the expedition: for the third time in its operating history, the ship visits the North Pole.
  • 10.2011-05.2012 – RV Polarstern is underway on its 28th expedition to the Antarctic, during the course of which e.g. the movement and distribution patterns of whales will be investigated. In addition, the two projects “Eddy Pump” and “System Coupling in the Deep Southern Ocean II (SYSTCO II)” will be completed.
  • 03.06.2012 – The ship is opened to the public as part of the traditional “Open Ship” programme. Over 5,000 people seize the chance to go on board the RV Polarstern.
  • 06.2012-10.2012 – During the Polarstern’s 27th stay in the Arctic and in the context of the “Sea ice - ocean - seafloor interactions in the changing Arctic” (IceAr) expedition, e.g. long-term changes in this sea-ice region and their potential connections to climate changes are analysed. To do so, the icebreaker visits 306 measuring stations and moors at nine different ice floes, covering 12,000 kilometres. Near the end of the expedition, the ship helps the Norwegian Research Hovercraft Sabvabaa safely return to Svalbard.
  • 10.2012-04.2014 – During the Polarstern’s 29th Antarctic expedition, the researchers on board investigate the status of the Antarctic ecosystem after the polar winter, as well as the causes of differences in the development of the sea-ice cover in the Antarctic and Arctic. To that end, for the sixth time the ship overwinters in the polar region, spending a total of 17 months and two weeks in continuous operation. On 09.12.2012, the ship celebrates its 30th “birthday”.
  • 06.2014-10.2014 – In the 28th Polarstern expedition to the Arctic, the focus is once again on long-term changes in the region and their potential ties to ongoing climate changes. Accordingly, 10-year long-term oceanographic and biological studies are continued – this year for the first time e.g. as part of the Helmholtz Association-sponsored infrastructure project “FRontiers in Arctic marine Monitoring” (FRAM). The sediments collected by the expedition team from the rim of the Lomonosov Ridge date back 30 to 40 million years, offering the first insights into this part of the Atlantic’s climate history.
  • 22.07.2014 – The AWI and the Shipping Group F. Laeisz sign a contract covering e.g. the management of Polarstern II for the period from 2019 to 2025. The company had previously won out in the Europe-wide request for tenders issued by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), and was awarded the contract for advising the Ministry on the design and construction of the new research vessel.
  • 18.12.2014 – The Federal Ministry of Education and Research opens the request for tenders regarding the “Construction and Turnkey Delivery of the New Icebreaking Polar Research and Supply Ship Polarstern II”.
  • 10.2014-03.2015 – During the 1st leg of its 30th Antarctic expedition, the RV Polarstern gives 22 PhD and Master’s students the opportunity to employ hydroacoustic measuring methods under real conditions, making the ship a “floating university”. During the 2nd leg of the journey, the icebreaker helps to deploy a large number of measuring buoys and trawling nets, supporting various research projects intended to gather data on the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, biogeochemical material flows in the Antarctic Ocean, and sea ice as a habitat and reserve food source for Antarctic fauna. While underway to Neumayer Station III, one of the Polarstern’s variable-pitch propellers develops an electrical problem; as a result, in early January the head researcher decides to break off the expedition and return to Bremerhaven. Thanks to the malfunctioning propeller, the ship is barely manoeuvrable in the ice. Accordingly, it can only resupply the Neumayer Station and gather glaciological data in Atka Bay before beginning the journey back north on 06.01.2015. On 10 March the Polarstern returns to port in Bremerhaven.
  • 19.05.2015 – After a repair, overhaul and testing phase lasting only 70 days, RV Polarstern embarks on yet another Arctic expedition – its 29th. The expedition, officially designated “Transitions in the Arctic Seasonal Sea Ice Zone” (TRANSSIZ), was planned by the international “Arctic in Rapid Transition” (ART) network. Primarily consisting of next-generation researchers, the network’s chief mission is to explore “climatic changes in the Arctic on an interdisciplinary basis and across physical and chronological borders”. As such, one goal of the expedition is to analyse the growth of plant and animal life under the Arctic sea ice, taking into consideration the fact that it is melting earlier and earlier in ever-larger sections of the North Pole region. 

Author: Christian Salewski

30th birthday