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.


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 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.

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.


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.

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.

30th birthday