Boulder scientists preparing for major investigation of Arctic climate

German research vessel to spend year in 'transpolar drift'

BOULDER, CO – MAY 10, 2019: University of Colorado scientist, Matt Shupe, is pictured with the “MOSAIC” project, massive research project he and others at the university will be engaged in with an international team this fall.They are going to intentionally allow a large ship to be locked in by ice near the Arctic Circle, and then conduct research from that shift as the ice carries it on a journey across the top of the world. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

As the Colorado weather starts to warm, a team of Boulder scientists is increasingly busy ramping up preparations for their part in a year-long research trip to one of the coldest places on Earth, taking them far from the comforts of home for months at a time.

The project is called MOSAiC, which stands for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. There has never been such a large-scale research effort in the Central Arctic, and it will involve as many as 600 people, representing 17 nations and costing roughly in the neighborhood of $150 million.

The centerpiece of the project is the German research icebreaker Polarstern. It will leave Tromsø, Norway, this fall, proceed to the Siberian sector of the Arctic in thin ice conditions, and then, after freezing into the strengthening ice, passively move over the course of a year with the transpolar drift, passing within 200 kilometers of the geographic North Pole, finally ending up in the Fram Strait east of Greenland.

For the entire time, researchers will be above the 80th parallel, and for much of it, north of the 87th.

“We’re going to be learning about the changing Arctic system, and specifically the changing system in response to declining sea ice,” said Matthew Shupe, project co-coordinator and a senior research scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

“The key buzzword is the ‘coupled system,’ the coupled processes in the interaction of the atmosphere, the sea ice, and the ocean, in that changing Arctic system,” said Shupe.

Climate change is registering faster and more dramatically in the Arctic than many other places on Earth.

“That is a process called Arctic amplification,” Shupe said, explaining that the loss of sea ice and associated loss of reflectivity means more heat is being absorbed in the increasingly open waters, sparking a feedback loop. “It means the temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than elsewhere on the globe, and that has some pretty serious implications.”

‘Third son’

The massive project is being led by Markus Rex of The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.

In an interview posted on the project website, Rex said, “The Arctic is closely linked to the weather in our latitudes. We can already see climate changes in the Arctic that are shaping our weather and climate. And at the beginning of this year we had an extreme case; it was actually warmer in the Central Arctic than in Germany.

“We won’t succeed in accurately forecasting climate developments if we don’t have reliable prognoses for the Arctic. As such, we need extensive field data that can only be gathered on site.”

Shupe, 45, estimates he has made about 10 trips to the Arctic — equating to a total of about two years of his life spent there — in his studies focused on Arctic cloud and atmospheric processes and their interactions at the surface level. Married, with sons 18 and 12, Shupe said a decade’s worth of preparation for the project have led to him calling the endeavor his “third son.”

“My family knows it very well,” he said. “They are very supportive. I’m just blessed to have that kind of support from my family. They put up with my long hours, and I’ll be gone, quite a bit.”

For MOSAiC, he will be aboard the Polarstern for about three and a half months at the outset, and the same amount of time on the back end. He is one of about 15 to 20 scientists from CU Boulder, CIRES or NOAA who will be spending some time in the frigid environment for the project, with about seven Boulder-based researchers logging time on the ship at any one time.

The project will be resupplied by four additional icebreakers, and at least three research aircraft, some of which will be landing and refueling at a landing strip prepared on the ice near the Polarstern.

Supplementary climate monitoring stations will be set up on the ice as far as 50 kilometers from the Polarstern, and measurements will be taken at altitudes up to 35,000 meters and depths down to 4,000 meters below the surface.

Throughout the course of the project’s 350 days, scientists will be coping with about 150 days of darkness, and temperatures that could plummet as far as minus 45 degrees Celsius (minus 49 Fahrenheit).

‘Polar bear watch’

And there will be polar bears.

“There certainly will be polar bears, that’s pretty much a guarantee,” Shupe said. “I have been there a number of times, and I’ve seen lots. We have safety personnel, and their primary purpose up there is to provide a safety perimeter for local work near the ship. When we are farther out from the ship, we’ll have people with firearms to provide that protection.” The project website states there will be “at least” six people designated as “polar bear watch.”

“It feels like we still have about 2,000 things left to take care of before we can finally get started,” Rex said of the logistics challenge the project poses. “Polarstern will be filled to the brim with equipment. In addition to containers full of measuring instruments, we’ll also be taking snowcats and new, specially made ice cutters with us, which we’ll use to carve a landing strip out of the ice. We’re going to have to play a bit of Tetris in order to somehow fit it all on board.”

Germany is the leader of the 17 nations represented on the project team, with the United States second in its level of participation. Shupe said U.S. support comes from The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, NOAA and NASA.

Shupe expects analysis of data produced from the Polarstern’s icy voyage will likely continue for at least 10 years, once the field work is completed and scientists are back in the comfort of their labs.

“We’re still doing research on a similar type of experiment from 20 years ago,” Shupe said, citing an Canadian icebreaker that was frozen into the ice off the coast of Alaska for close to a year.

“What’s different now, in the most important way, is that in the 20 years since, the Arctic system has changed dramatically. That’s the big thing. And of course, our capabilities have changed dramatically. We have so many more sophisticated instruments, new capabilities — and a changing Arctic.”

Shupe will end this summer by taking his older son, a 2019 Boulder High graduate, off to college. And then he will be headed to the Arctic. There is already unmistakable excitement in his voice.

“We need to go out there and measure the full year of the central Arctic. We just don’t have enough observations out there, especially in the wintertime,” he said.

“I have been there a lot, mostly in the summer. That’s easy. The winter is hard.”

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