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A year in the Arctic investigating the climate crisis

Hundreds of scientists spent a year on the icebreaker Polarstern investigating the effects of climate change on sea ice. Here, co-ordinator of the MOSAiC project, Dr Matthew Shupe, tells The Big Issue what life is like at the northernmost part of Earth.

When you’re seated in front of the fire on Christmas Day, made merry by good food and drink, spare a thought for scientists enduring slightly less hospitable conditions.

A team of researchers spent a year on the icebreaker Polarstern, drifting with the sea ice in the Arctic to better understand changes taking place at the epicentre of the climate crisis. The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (thankfully shortened to MOSAiC) is the most ambitious research project ever carried out. Three hundred scientists plus crew navigated the most extreme conditions on the planet – not to mention coronavirus – to produce unprecedented amounts of information, the quality and quantity of which has never been measured so extensively.

MOSAiC co-coordinator Dr Matthew Shupe is a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado. Here he reveals what living on top of the world tells us about the future. 

THE BIG ISSUE: What did MOSAiC allow you and your colleagues to do that nobody has been able to do in the same way?

DR MATTHEW SHUPE: People have been to the Arctic before, of course, but what’s important about this mission is that we were there for a full year, which is not very common. This allowed us to dive into so many details that we’re finding to be very important: pressure building up within sea ice that makes it break and deform, details of gas transfer between the ocean and the atmosphere.

The team observed that the sea ice is becoming more fragile by the year PHOTO: ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT

What do we know now that we didn’t know before?

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It’s hard to answer that because we’re still synthesising the information. I refrain from lofty conclusions. On the other hand, we spent a year out there and the ice was breaking all around us, much more than I had anticipated. The sea ice is very thin, very fragile; it breaks easier than it has in the past.

We all know that the Earth is warming up and that’s leading to less ice, right? But thinner ice breaks more easily. Just as we experience the way we have ice in a glass, for example, smaller chunks of ice melt faster. These are the feedbacks we were experiencing in real time there in the central Arctic. This ice breaking and the transfer of energy working together to amplify and speed up the decline in the sea ice.

How will your findings be used?

Climate models tell us what happens in the future if we continue on a certain emissions pathway, or if we change pathway. So those models are really important. Unfortunately these models struggle in the Arctic because we just haven’t had as many observations there. The change in the Arctic is so much more rapid than elsewhere on the globe. The temperature is rising three times more than the global average. If we think that we’re going to represent the rest of the global system, we certainly have to get the Arctic correct because it’s leading the way and it has all these feedbacks on the rest of the global system that we’re trying to understand.

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What was a typical day like onboard the Polarstern?

I would say every day was atypical. We would have a lot of meetings. One of the important things for us as scientists is to understand what each other is seeing out there so we can adapt our strategy and coordinate our measurements. I’m an atmospheric scientist but I’m really interested in what the sea ice scientist or the biologists are seeing because we’re trying to put these pieces together. Typically in the morning I would go out on the ice, then again in the afternoon. We would check equipment, make some samples, collect ice cores, look at the snow. Towards the end of the day we’d squeeze in a little time to look at the data that’s coming in, try to get a little sleep and then do it all again.

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Is establishing a routine almost essential when it’s difficult to keep track of time due to the endless days and nights?

It’s all based on meal times, really. You definitely don’t want to miss a meal because you’re burning a lot of calories out there in the cold. So that’s really the clock – meal times.

What’s on the menu?

It’s a German icebreaker so there were potatoes with every meal in some form. Lots of meat. I happen to not be a meat eater myself so there were a number of salads every day. There was definitely some repetition, as you can imagine.

The German research icebreaker Polarstern in the Central Arctic Ocean during polar night. PHOTO: ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT

In the most cut-off part of the planet did you feel alone or was there a feeling of community?

It’s this interesting connection of isolation and not. I live out in the mountains of Colorado. I like it, it’s quiet, there’s a lot of space. And so here we are on the ship, many people crammed in, sharing rooms and eating every meal together. So oddly enough, in our remote outpost on the far reaches of the Earth, I felt a little crowded. But outside the ship, of course, it’s extremely spacious. I was fortunate enough to go out to some of our remote sites that were a helicopter trip away. And boy, it’s dark and it’s quiet. Really spectacular isolation.

Can you describe what that was like?

It really depends on the conditions of the time. If it’s still then it’s very silent. If there are winds you can get some really interesting sounds. You can hear snow crystals blowing along the surface. And we had a lot of ice dynamics – cracks in the ice opening up and ice coming back together. Extraordinary sounds. I mean, the ice is screaming out at times. Screeches, creaks and groans. It really does bring this personality to the ice.

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PHOTO: ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT

How did you celebrate Christmas?

On Christmas Day I was on a different icebreaker. We had rotations and so a Russian ship came and brought the new people. By the time Christmas hit, we were still within the sea ice. We did have a little Christmas celebration. Everybody put on their nice clothes – some nicer than others – some nice food and some nice beverages. You know, there was a little singing involved, some people playing music. It was kind of a nice environment out there.

Does it feel different celebrating Christmas near Santa’s HQ?

We didn’t see Santa this time. It’s certainly interesting. Typically, for myself, I like to celebrate those holidays with family. And during that MOSAiC year it was a different definition of family, but family nonetheless.

The Polarstern spent 10 months frozen solid in the pack ice, drifting 3400km in a zigzag pattern PHOTO: ALFRED-WEGENER-INSTITUT

Looking ahead into 2022, do you have hope?

I would like the global community and our leaders who make decisions to value our science. We go to great lengths to get observations that develop our methodologies and our analyses and our models to provide the best information we can. And I would hope that that’s given due respect, that people trust the information then make solid decisions based on that. That’s the most I can ask as a scientist. The decision about what we actually do, it’s a big one. It’s complicated – well over my head as a climate scientist. But as long as they take this information into account and they believe it, I think that’s a win for us. And I do feel hopeful for that. I feel like more and more the world is trusting the science that is provided and scientists are trusting each other. I think that’s really important. 

Arctic Drift is the first premium documentary from Fremantle

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