What will the different phases of the expedition look like?
In the Central Arctic there’s only the ocean, which is covered by a sheet of ice. And it’s that force of nature – the ice sheet – that will determine the course of our expedition. We’ll begin in September 2019 and proceed with the research icebreaker Polarstern to the Siberian sea ice, which will still be thin at that time of year. Once there, we’ll look for a stable floe to drop anchor on. We’ll then drift along with the floe through the ice of the Central Arctic, which will grow thicker as the winter progresses. One year later, we should have reached the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard. In the course of that year, a total of 600 people will take part in the six cruise legs.
That sounds like a huge challenge from a logistics standpoint.
To provide suitable logistical support for the expedition, not only Polarstern but also four additional icebreakers are called for. In addition, at least three research aircraft will be involved, some of which will land and refuel at a landing strip prepared on the ice near Polarstern. Thanks to this “filling station at the North Pole”, for the first time the planes will be able to go on extended flight campaigns in the Central Arctic. We’ll also be setting up fuel depots on islands off the coast of Siberia; they’ll serve as bases, allowing Polarstern to be reached by helicopter and expedition members to be evacuated if need be – a contingency plan for medical emergencies on board. Plus we’ll establish an entire network of stations on the ice all around the ship. We’ll visit some of the stations, located within a 50-kilometre radius of Polarstern, by helicopter on a regular basis – and all these aspects are logistical operations that have never before been attempted in this part of the world.
Why hasn’t anyone else attempted a transpolar drift since Nansen’s day?
Except for Nansen, almost no-one has dared to journey to the Central Arctic in winter, or to use the transpolar drift; there have been a handful of small Russian drift camps, which consisted of simple cabins on the ice floes, and the small sailing ship Tara, which was launched by a private organisation and allowed itself to become encased in the ice. But the research capabilities on these small platforms were fairly limited. The MOSAiC expedition will be the first ever to bring a modern research icebreaker and its unparalleled scientific resources to the Central Arctic in winter.
What sets MOSAiC apart from these past expeditions?
Definitely the scale; this is the largest research expedition to the Central Arctic there has ever been. We’re collaborating with more than 60 institutes from 17 countries. The number of participants alone is a wholly new dimension. In addition, there’s never been such a coordinated effort involving five icebreakers, which requires a complex choreography so that we can always be resupplied with fuel and provisions, and exchange staff, at just the right time. Nor has there ever been a comparable deployment of research aircraft in the Central Arctic. Normally our planes simply don’t have the range for extended campaigns. Taken together, these aspects will yield a breakthrough in our understanding of the Arctic climate system.