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23 September, 2019 - 13:34 By Kate Sweeney

UEA and British Antarctic Survey in largest ever polar expedition

RV Polarstern

The British Antarctic Survey and researchers from University of East Anglia (UEA) have joined hundreds of international scientists in a groundbreaking Arctic voyage to the epicentre of global warming to address the most pressing issues affecting climate change.

It is the first year-round expedition into the central Arctic Ocean and the largest polar expedition in history. 

The German research icebreaker RV Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, Norway last week following years of planning. Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, the Multi-Disciplinary drifting Observatory for the study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) programme will see the RV Polarstern frozen into the Arctic sea ice to then drift across the surface of the Arctic Ocean for the year-long research mission which is expected to complete its drift by October 2020.

The scientists will study the entire climate system in the Central Arctic for the first time. The epic voyage – with an estimated budget of approximately €140 million  – seeks to gain vital insights into the interactions that form life in the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic climate, which is crucial for understanding global climate change. 

The area is normally inaccessible; however, Arctic ice is currently at its lowest annual extent. The team has an unprecedented opportunity to conduct research and gather year-round data on five subareas including sea ice, ecosystems, ocean, atmosphere, and biogeochemistry from a floating platform, field camps and advanced remote and autonomous vehicles.  

Seven UK teams join scientists from countries including Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. An international fleet of four icebreakers and helicopters and aircraft will supply the team during its mission. 

Dr Markus Frey, of the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey, which is among the UK project teams, said: “Small salty particles produced above sea ice may influence water and ice cloud formation and therefore climate in a rapidly changing Arctic. 

“MOSAiC provides us with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate particle sources and processes above sea ice year-round in the poorly known central Arctic ocean.

“The new data will ultimately improve climate models and predictions of Arctic climate and sea ice. At the moment, I am most excited about arriving at the ice floe, when all the preparations will pay off, and data will start to come in.”

UEA's scientists will spearhead research on the role of sea ice on the seasonal carbon uptake by the polar ocean. PhD student Elise Droste joins the expedition next summer for the final leg of the MOSAiC mission and will collect carbonate chemistry samples in seawater and sea ice.

She said: “I'm beyond excited to be a part of this incredibly ambitious expedition! It tackles the challenge of obtaining year-round and especially winter data from the high Arctic region head on, which is exactly what we need in order to gain the necessary understanding of how changes in one of the most sensitive regions on Earth are going to be affected by, and will in turn affect, our changing climate.

"The achievement will not just be in obtaining the data, but in putting our heads together with the other scientists from all over the world and from various disciplines to address some of the most pressing issues within this field.”

Dr Dorothee Bakker of the Centre of Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, who is leading UEA's project, said: “Sea ice modulates carbon uptake by the polar oceans. MOSAiC will provide unique year-round observations of carbon transfer between the sea-ice covered Arctic Ocean, the sea ice and the overlying atmosphere. Elise's research will improve understanding and modelling of carbon uptake by the polar oceans.”

The UK projects received £1.8 million in grants through the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), from the UK Government's Business department, to establish the UK's position at the forefront of international scientific collaborations.

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