By Caroline Fouvet
In 1893, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (see picture above) deliberately trapped his vessel in the Siberian. His plan was for it to be carried across the Arctic Ocean by the polar sea ice until reaching the North Pole. However, the ship ultimately arriving in Greenland, and Nansen’s experiment proved that parts of the Arctic ice sheet were moving southward.
One century later, 50 international research institutions are planning to trap another ice breaker, the Polarstern, in the ice sheet. The mission’s goal is to collect, over the course of a year, detailed climate data that cannot be obtained by satellites to improve both climate models and weather forecasts.
Image: German icebreaker Polarstern arriving at Reykjavik. Photo by Bruce McAdam (CC by 2.0).
The project’s expected results are twofold. First, scientists hope to both gain a better understanding of climate change, given the challenges of ground-based measurement and study in the Arctic. Second, the project will improve weather forecasting in the northern Hemisphere. Climate change has a strong impact in the region, and as Arctic sea ice continues to retreat at a rapid pace, this directly impacts on the weather in Europe and North America.
A warmer climate directly affects sea-ice cover, whose surface has kept on diminishing during the past decade, reaching a record low in 2012 of 3.39 million square km. As temperatures reach 20°C above the seasonal average, an ice-free Arctic could be seen well before the end of the century. Without ice, more solar energy is more absorbed, leading to higher water temperatures, increased rates of ice melt, and the overall warming of the Arctic climate.
Since the ice sheet is declining at a much higher rate than was previously predicted, it seems that there is a missing part of the puzzle that current models are yet to fully capture. The Polarstern mission, could be the key to unlocking some of these secrets.
Enhancing weather forecasting is also necessary as a warmer Arctic reduces the temperature differential between low and high altitudes, which in turn disrupts pressure systems, that meander instead of move in a more contained zonal fashion. Consequently, this causes more frequent cold air outbreaks from the Arctic, that can in turn trigger significant socioeconomic impacts.
Florida’s 2010 ‘great freeze’ is a notable example of record low temperatures that were highly disruptive for the state’s economy, with farmers suffering a 30% crop loss. In the same year, the UK experienced similarly freezing temperatures, which were estimated to have cost £1.2bn a day, as workers were forced to stay at home, supply chains were blocked, and transport was interrupted.
The Polarstern will set sail for its 2,500km journey across the Arctic Ocean in 2019. This bold mission could constitute a stepping stone towards a better understanding of Arctic and global climate change, as well as contributing to the enhanced forecasting of northern hemisphere cold waves.