September 18, 2020

Postcards from a formerly frozen icebreaker: Part 59

Posted by larryohanlon

By Matthew Shupe

8/14/20 Recovery II

We have a new mission now that we’ve sailed off on Tryoshnikov. Picking up the distributed network.  For MOSAiC we made this fantastic network of buoys, a constellation of observations stretching for 10s of km in all directions from Polarstern. The whole constellation had drifted across the Central Arctic during this past year in roughly the same relative orientation. Only in the past weeks has the formation started to change rapidly. Some nodes have drifted faster than others, spreading out. And many of the nodes have been approaching the ice edge. A lot of these measurement systems float, but some do not.  And some also have data stored locally that is not transmitted via satellite communications. Lastly, these stations often contain plastics, batteries, and other materials we would like to keep from polluting the Arctic.

Team Ocean and the crew onboard Polarstern recover instruments that were deployed on the MOSAiC project. Photo: Lianna Nixon/CIRES and CU Boulder

There are many reasons to go out and recover the various assets that we’ve placed out on the ice.  And so this is now our mission with Tryoshnikov; to finish what we’ve started in the past days with Polarstern. In the two days since the ships parted we’ve been very successful. Now that we get higher frequency updates on the positions of the different stations, as well as better visibility in general, it has been easy to find the installations. It is kind of a fun “where’s Waldo” game to be searching the icy expanse for little buoys…. Some of them white balls!  White makes sense as far as minimizing melt around the buoys…. But it sure does make the search hard!  Once spotted, we bring the ship alongside the remaining ice floe. So far the floes have still been more than 100m across, with some modestly stable ice. At least there is enough ice to serve as a place to set down our recovery team with the Tryoshnikov’s huge cranes, which allow us to keep the ship at a healthy distance and minimize the breakage to the floes. For the recoveries at both the M6 and M4 sites that team worked quickly and effectively. Extracting our assets, leaving behind no trace except a few holes in an ice floe that will likely be entirely gone within a couple of days. We will see how things progress in the coming days, but so far we’ve had great success.

8/16/20  Sustainable Science

Our process of investigating the environmental system can have its own environmental impacts. A few of these are major. These ships burn 10-40 tons of fuel per day with the proportional emissions of carbon dioxide, aerosols, black carbon and more. We also launch four weather balloons each day, leaving little plastic boxes and latex where they land. All together about 800 kg of waste being left out on the sea ice. There have been various installations lost to the elements, some on purpose, taking with them batteries, electronics, plastics, and other materials. One of our flux sleds was swallowed by a pressure ridge. We removed what was possible, but in the end the ice still held on to some parts and they will now remain in the Arctic Ocean. Another bit one is the flagging we used to mark our ice floe. Flags are important for safety, for signaling, for marking pathways and scientific installations. But our flags degraded over time.  After months of flapping in the Arctic winds they became tattered and frayed, losing little synthetic fibers. At some point during Leg 3, there were little neon green and orange threads littered all over the MOSAiC floe. Some people put in a huge effort to bring in what seemed like 1000 flags, their bamboo poles, and the threads they shed. There are many other examples like these…. The impacts of the science itself. And this has been a hot topic of our discussion here as we head home.

Team Ocean scientist Jacob Allerholt deploys an XCTD into the ocean as we sail Northwards in search of a new floe. Photo: Lianna Nixon/CIRES and CU Boulder

How can we make our science more friendly for this delicate environment we study? The answers have been wide reaching and varied. Of course there are ways to improve our materials: biodegradable weather balloons would be a great start. But there are many other ways to make improvements that require development and investment. We’ve discussed how some of this could occur at the individual level, all across the field sciences. But we generally feel that policies are needed to place a stronger incentive, or even mandate, to promote change. Ideally this all channels through high-level policy makers. But it could also be implemented by funding agencies. As part of the proposal process it is typically necessary to describe the plans for outreach, data management, mentorship, and so many other areas. Environmental impact assessment could be managed or documented in a similar way. But how do we promote this type of progress? Another great idea that I very much liked was basically the efficiency argument. By the end of MOSAiC there will have been a fixed amount of environmental impact, the investment will have been made. But we control the scientific output, the return on those investments. The more good science we can accomplish for the investments, the better, and the less impact per unit of knowledge gained. I like this concept very much because it addresses the efficiency side of the equation. One last idea that I’ll put to words is the idea of a consulting firm that deals with sustainable science. To me this seems like a viable direction, though it might already exist. This group could work with the science community, both individually and collectively, to develop new, more sustainable approaches, instruments, materials. They could work with agencies that want to implement new policies. They could advocate for new policies and help to coordinate the community around these ideas. And if really ambitious, it could have a branch that builds solutions. A couple people here could be the ones to implement such an idea to help nurture sustainable science in a more substantial way. As within the rest of our lives, the foundational message of our discussions was clear: At some level we all have a choice and an impact. We can put in the extra effort to make our field science more sustainable and less detrimental if we choose to do so. 

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. 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 of the expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute. U.S. funding for MOSAiC sciences comes primarily from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Follow the expedition: and @MOSAiCArctic.