What was the journey from Svalbard back to the MOSAiC floe like, and how did it compare with Polarstern Captain Stefan Schwarze’s experiences on the way south?
Thomas Wunderlich: We had the advantage of being able to choose our preferred route into the northern ice. There were a number of techniques and analyses that helped us find the ideal position for entering the ice. What’s most important, just as it was back in the days of the early explorers, is to not just charge in blindly. On the southern tour, Stefan Schwarze didn’t have that luxury: he had his position and had to follow the course to Svalbard that was handed to him. It goes without saying that the waters of the outer Arctic ice aren’t subject to the same pressure as in the inner ice, let alone the Central Arctic; the floe dimensions are on a different scale, too. Given these conditions, for the first few days, we made good and rapid progress.
How were the weather conditions?
We had favourable winds and good visibility, and their importance shouldn’t be underestimated. But from 82 ° North, the situation grew ‘tenser’: the ice dynamic increased, and the ice grew thicker. That being said, we never encountered the huge masses of ice that Stefan Schwarze reported. Nevertheless, on the weekend of 13/14 June, the pack ice slowed us to a standstill, forcing us to shut down the engines to conserve our fuel, which we may need every last drop of later on, and which could tip the scales. But as we know: in the polar regions, nothing can be taken for granted, and you have to be ready for anything.
How did it feel to have to ‘park’ the Polarstern, and what challenges did it pose?
Coming to a dead stop like this has the advantage of showing you: nothing about this venture is predictable or can be taken for granted – sometimes you just have to accept your circumstances. In my view, both the voyage out of the ice, led by Stefan Schwarze, and now the transit back into it had their fair share of challenges. The time pressure, dwindling resources and, as a result, a very limited choice of routes on the one hand – but knowing that you’ll be moving from the ‘bad’ ice into the ‘good’ ice; and on the other, having ample resources, but having to move from a ‘good’ situation into an unpredictable one. Nevertheless we also had the good fortune (s. wind) that over the past several days the floe had drifted in our direction, significantly reducing the distance and making it easier to approach. In short: there are always good moments and bad ones. When the bad ones come, the best advice is to keep a cool head and stay calm.
What are your hopes for the expedition?
I hope we have a relatively short travel time back to the floe, for the researchers’ sake: the southern drift and the dawning summer still lie before us. I hope we can stay with the floe as long as possible, so that the researchers can accompany it from birth through the end of its lifecycle – even though doing so will pose an enormous challenge for logistics and navigation.