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During Oct. 16 installation of the 11-meter tower at Met City – the center of the meteorological measurements on the floe. scientist Matthew Shupe felt a crack developing, about two meters from the met tower. The crack grew to about five centimeters by the end of the day. Such cracks are the results of the constantly moving ice floe scientists are working on and will be closely monitored. The German research icebreaker Polarstern is seen in the distance.
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Boulder research scientist Chris Coxis recently returned from his early labors on what could be the defining Arctic research project of a generation, and he is already keenly anticipating his return in January — although home will be an icebreaker intentionally trapped by ice and drifting across the top of the world.

“It’s something I wanted to be part of,” said Cox, 35, a research scientist for the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies, who is based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “People are going to be studying MOSAiC for decades.”

MOSAiC, which stands for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, is an international research expedition to study the physical, chemical, and biological processes that couple the Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, ocean and ecosystem.

There has never been such a large-scale research effort in the Central Arctic, and it will involve as many as 600 people, representing 19 nations and costing in the neighborhood of $150 million. Support comes from The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, NOAA and NASA.

At the centerpiece of the project is the German research icebreaker Polarstern, which left Tromsø, Norway, on Sept. 20, on its journey to the Siberian sector of the Arctic where, after freezing into the strengthening ice, will move over the course of a full year with the transpolar drift, passing within 200 kilometers of the geographic North Pole, finally ending up in the Fram Strait east of Greenland.

On his recent stint with the project, Cox spent most of his time on the Russian scientific research vessel research vessel Akademik Fedorov, which was working in tandem with Polarstern, as the primary vessel chose the floe in which it will be drifting.

Through the first part of October, the Fedorov supported the distribution across neighboring ice of an extensive array of scientific assets around the Polarstern, which will be taking measurements of the interplay between ocean, ice and atmosphere, across a research field 80 kilometers wide.

Cox said a “unique” aspect of the MOSAiC project is what he called the two-dimensional concept of the gathering of data that will shed more light on the evolution and behavior of the ice.

The thermodynamic dimension in the equation, he said, is the energy exchange in the vertical field, between the ocean, the ice and the atmosphere exchange, or what Cox called “a melting and freezing problem.”

The horizontal dimension is the dynamics of the movement of the ice itself, crashing together, how it is driven by the wind, and more.

“The evolution of the ice through the year is determined by these two factors,” Cox said. “And what MOSAiC does really well, this an experimental setup that allows us to link those two features — instead of just making measurement at one point, or making measurements associated with either dynamics or thermodynamics, we‘re doing those two things together, so we’ve got the vertical perspective covered and we’ve got the horizontal perspective covered.

Exertion, exhaustion

Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute is leading the expedition, with key support from CU Boulder’s CIRES. Matthew Shupe, a senior research scientist at CIRES, is a project co-coordinator.

As a team leader for the current, first leg of the project, Shupe will not come back to Boulder until the end of the year, and will return to the research effort’s sixth and final leg, another block of about three and a half months, later next year.

Shupe, one of about 15 to 20 scientists from CU Boulder, CIRES or NOAA who will be spending some time in the Arctic on the project, has been blogging regularly about its progress.

On Oct. 15, Shupe wrote, “The last days have been beautiful. Actually quite light out, although the sun had been below the horizon for about a week now. The sky is a sunset of color most of the day. And there have been relatively few clouds, giving a nice view of the sky….. and the full moon! Large and bold. Arctic full moons are so amazing, really bringing out the deep purple in the surrounding sky.”

Five days later, under the heading “Mellow At Last,” Shupe wrote about having given the ATMOS team that he leads a breather, deciding he might have been driving people too hard.

“Today, with the first planned activity not until 11 a.m., and not much activity in general, this made for a bit of a lazy day, an opportunity to catch up on mellow. This was actually great for me as well, as I hadn’t been paying attention to the overall exertion, and exhaustion,” Shupe wrote.

“Out here it is so easy to get caught up in the work. It is never quite clear what day of the week it is…. Or really even what time it is. Now it is pretty much full darkness all day, and each day is just about the same. We are here to make measurements continuously, and thus there is some effort needed every day just to keep us moving forward.”

Numerous teaching opportunities

Also recently returned from six weeks assigned to Akademic Fedorov is Anne Gold, director of the CIRES Education & Outreach group and a co-investigator on an NSF grant that coordinates the U.S. side of the MOSAiC expedition.

“We are developing a planetarium show that will be released in late 2020 (with a first short teaser being released in mid 2020) together with the Fiske Planetarium,” she said in an email, using two young filmmakers from CU Boulder who are joining the expedition each for two three-month “legs,” capturing 360-degree footage.

Additionally, Gold’s team is creating numerous materials for teachers, including a “MOSAiC Monday,” a weekly newsletter with ideas for short 10-minute engagement activities they can do with their students. Sign up for that program is at tinyurl.com/y3ll5rua.

“Students can track the expedition in real time on a map, graph Arctic oceanographic data from the ship, watch video interviews with scientists and crewmembers, and engage in short Arctic-related engagements that support next-generation science standard-based curriculum,” Gold said.

Gold’s group is also developing a Massive Open Online Course for the Coursera platform that features MOSAiC science.

Gold said she had been to the Arctic before, but had never spent time on sea ice.

“What fascinates me most about the Arctic is the light and the vastness of the landscape,” she said. “The low-angle sunlight and the ice and snow together bring out breathtaking impressions of beautiful orange, purple, blue skies/sunsets/sunrises and beautiful snow and ice shapes/reflections and images. When we were working on the ice to deploy instruments (away from the ship noises) the quiet is also beautiful — just like people may know the quiet of a snowy day here in Boulder. This quiet combined with the wide landscape is magical.”

It’s an environment like no other, and Cox, who is married but has no children, will be heading back there Jan. 20, to remain with the Polarstern until April, working on the four measurements stations developed in Boulder by Shupe’s team, which include an 11-meter meteorological sensors tower.

Although in his life he has cumulatively spent about a year in Arctic environments, this is the first extended time Cox will be spending on sea ice.

“She worries about me. I know it’s hard” he said, of his wife, Holly. “I receive an enormous amount of support from her, and other members of my family. Being away for that long is challenging on everybody, but I really appreciate the support I receive that enables me to do these things.”

MOSAiC was preceded by the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean project, involving a Canadian research vessel that locked itself in sea ice that from October 1997 to October 1998.

“It’s still a very important experiment. It is a legacy data set,” Cox said, referencing the historic experiment known to Arctic researchers as SHEBA.

“MOASiC is the next generation, and this is the next legacy data set. That’s something I definitely want to be part of, because people are going to be studying MOSAiC for decades,” Cox said.

Flipping through photographs on his laptop from his initial time on the MOSAiC project, Cox shared a photo of a polar bear and its offspring, one more element of what he matter-of-factly refers to as an “exotic” environment. While the animals’ presence is of interest to the scientists, they also represent a potential danger to those who are out working on the ice that envelops the research vessel.

“Hopefully they stop associating Polarstern with good smells, and start associating it with loud noises, and wander off,” Cox said.

Setting up the remotely operated vehicle for underwater surveys (ROV) site before the ice began to drift, necessitating equipment rescue by helicopter.

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