November 19, 2019

Postcards from a frozen icebreaker – Part 12

Posted by larryohanlon

By Matthew Shupe

11/9/19 Another Failed Mission
L1 flight as high on the agenda today… but kept getting pushed back. Including by a bear visit, which closed down most operations. But finally in the afternoon we were able to hit the air. Loaded our gear on the helicopter….. sled, ladder, shovel, feather duster (great for instrument cleaning), tool box, numerous safety bags, rifle for the bear guard and a spare, personal kits (need those spare gloves), and most importantly our replacement power systems. It is about 280 lbs…. two big batteries and a fuel cell, all set up in a box. We fired it up for about an hour before the flight to get it all toasty warm inside. Then shut it down, closed the box, and loaded it on the helicopter. On site the plan is to quickly get it over to the flux station, plug it into a fuel cartridge, and fire it up again, to stay warm while we prepare the station for the power system transplant. Such a great plan…… but unfortunately the remote controlled helicopter landing lights at the remote station did not work, so we flew around for 1.5 hour looking for it. So tough to find as everything is white (and snow covered) but it is totally dark out. Part of the challenge is that GPS coordinates quickly become outdated due to the ice drift. We get a reading from a buoy from ½ hour before but the whole pack has moved. This unsuccessful search had me really bummed and wondering if/when we would find this site.

After a long time without any polar bear around the camp, a single young bear came to visit our ice floe. After polar bear guard Hans Honold scared it away with signal pistols, the bear walked away. Per safety procedure, most work on ice was cancelled for the rest of the day and the bear was monitored from the bridge with the infrared camera. Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Marcel Nicolaus (CC-BY 4.0)

11/10/19 Open Heart Surgery
It all went off without a hitch or at least without a big hitch. Well planned in advance, we had the right tools and our specially concocted power system in a box. Beautiful clear skies and cold…. Below -30C for the first time at MOSAiC. The helicopter dropped us off. Dave, Hans, and I at the L1 site, some 15 km away from Polarstern. A flurry of activity as we unload our gear from the helicopter and pull it out of the downwash…. Then up and away, … and …. Silence. Darkness. This is really it: the Arctic winter. Full darkness with stars. And what a beautiful day. But no time yet to spend soaking up the scene as we have a key and pressing task to accomplish and our new power system is getting colder. It won’t start if it gets below the freezing point, so time is of the essence. Kind of like a transplant, bringing in a new organ and treating it very carefully. We started up the spare system right away so it could keep itself warm, then opened up the old system, dark and cold, to remove the frozen system. The exhaust system was the culprit, a huge frozen beard extending down from where the water exhaust drips out. Ice extending up the exhaust tube With all of the frozen parts out, we connected the new batteries and…. We have life! Little lights and fans start coming on, the system is coming back to life. And then we fired up the new fuel cell, hear it purring away, creating internal heat and breathing life back into our flux station that had been silent for 2 days. Oh what a relief. After the surgery, a few minutes to breath, and enjoy our work. Looking back at the Polarstern in the distance, a little clump of lights sitting under the stars…. And there is an orange oval on the skyline right near the ship. Could this be the tethered balloon that colleagues have just inflated? Not quite the right spot for that. No….. it’s the moon! Just breaking the horizon. Deep orange and huge as it moves up into the sky over the next hour. Wow, another of those magical Arctic moments that gets etched in the memory.

The atmosphere team, here represented by David Costa (left) and Ola Persson (right), work to restore full functionality to one of the distributed network sites about 6.5 nautical miles from Polarstern (reached by helicopter). At -28 C it was cold work, but after three hours of work, the mission was successful. Costa and Persson are both CIRES /NOAA scientists. Polar bear guard Hans Honold is in the middle. Photo: David Costa, CIRES and NOAA scientist.

11/12/19 Headed in the Right Direction
Our path so far has been an interesting one. The design of MOSAiC was to follow the Transpolar Drift, to follow in Nansen’s footsteps. With tons of modelling and observational analysis led by Thomas Krumpen, we selected our starting location and developed a reasonable idea of our projected or expected drift path for the year. But then right from the start we drifted to the south…. Headed towards Siberia! After what seemed like too long, the movement finally started to bend around to a more northerly direction. But shortly thereafter we got stuck in a persistent weather pattern that would send us strongly to the west. Day after day Jens, the onboard weather forecaster, would present the forecast: E-SE winds. Each day taking stock of our location we would see a major westward shift, with some amount of N shift. Over time we headed towards the edge of our forecasted drift zone. We really don’t want to go too far to the west, as this will push us towards the Russian exclusive economic zone, which would limit our ability to conduct science and/or would set us up to get pushed out of the ice way too early in the year. But now finally….. in the last few days we get a big wind shift towards southerly winds, bringing warm air… a shockingly comfortable -14C out. But also pushing us to the north quickly, after circling back on our previous path. To the north and east we go with favorable wind forecasts in the coming days to help push us back into the middle of our projected drift course… and back closer to the North Pole. Onward!

Location information from, Alfred Wegener Institute. On this web application, users can toggle between the path of the modern Polarstern and the older path of the wooden Fram expedition 125 years ago.

Read more of Shupe’s posts here

Scientist Matthew Shupe (CIRES/University of Colorado Boulder) is blogging from an icebreaker frozen into Arctic Ocean sea ice, so far north that the Northern Lights are no longer visible. Shupe is co-coordinator of the international Arctic climate mission MOSAiC, or Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. Today, he’s among about 100 people aboard the German icebreaker Polarstern, which is frozen into an ice floe where it will drift until September 2020. Shupe, who also works for the NOAA Physical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colorado, began planning the mission more than a decade ago, with an expanding network of scientific leaders from around the world. In a series of short posts from the ship, he shares his experience during the first several weeks of the expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute. Shupe is aboard AWI’s Polarstern until late December; he’ll return to the ship for at least one more two-month stint next year. U.S. funding for MOSAiC sciences comes primarily from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Follow the expedition: and @MOSAiCArctic.