Dartmouth scientists join Arctic research mission

  • The German icebreaker and research vessel Polarstern at shore in Tromso, Norway, Wednesday Sept. 19, 2019. Scientists from more than a dozen nations are preparing to launch the biggest and most complex research expedition ever attempted in the central Arctic. About 100 researchers will set sail Friday from Tromso, Norway, aboard the German icebreaker Polarstern in an effort to understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic and regions beyond. (Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/NTB Scanpix via AP) ap — Rune Stoltz Bertinussen

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/20/2019 6:52:40 PM
Modified: 9/20/2019 10:13:46 PM

HANOVER — Ian Raphael just set sail for the frozen top of the world.

On Friday, the graduate student at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering rode a Russian icebreaker heading deep into the Arctic sea ice as part of the largest scientific expedition of its kind in history.

In past months, he’s been learning to dress properly in the cold, running shipboard survival drills, practicing with scientific equipment in cold climates, and even taking weapons training to fend off polar bears.

“I grew up backpacking and climbing through winters in the Olympic Mountains, and I love to Nordic ski in Hanover,” he wrote in an email from the expedition’s launch point in Tromsø, Norway. “I will definitely draw on that experience, but the Arctic is an order of magnitude more intense.”

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC, is a year-long, $158 million expedition to study the Arctic environment and develop models that can help understand the consequences for this polar region — and the world — as global warming continues to melt Arctic ice.

To accomplish this, some 600 experts from 19 nations will take turns living and working aboard the German research vessel Polarstern, the expedition’s 387-foot-long floating home base. (Raphael will transfer to the Polarstern from the Russian vessel later.)

“It’s crucial that we have the ability to predict the worst-case (climate) scenario and to then ask, ‘OK, what can we do to mitigate this?’ ” wrote Raphael, who is one of four Dartmouth researchers participating in the expedition. “All of that starts with observational data from projects like MOSAiC.”

The Polarstern’s first order of business will be to find a suitable ice floe into which the icebreaker can freeze itself to ride through the dark, polar winter. If all goes as planned, the Polarstern — as well as an extended network of sensing stations stretching as far as 30 miles away from the ship — will drift along with the ice, covering about four or so miles per day, until freed by the spring thaw of 2020.

While Raphael is off to sea, participating in the first of six ‘legs’ of the expedition, Thayer professor and MOSAiC project board member Donald Perovich has to wait until June for his turn on the Polarstern.

“I’m in this strange situation where there’s this great anticipation, the build-up after a decade of planning ... but I don’t get into the game until the fifth quarter,” said Perovich, a sea ice geophysicist who first visited the Arctic 40 years ago.

“During that time, we were interested in the ice because it covered an ocean and we wanted to understand the properties of it,” he said. “As the years went by, it became of more and more interest from a climate-change perspective.”

Though ice covers a vast part of the Arctic Ocean, it’s only five to 10 feet thick, on average. “So it’s a thin veneer of ice,” Perovich said. “And for all of the harsh environment, the ice cover is really pretty fragile, because it’s a material that’s close to its melting point.”

Perovich says the ice cover at summer’s end is less than half of what it used to be, compared to when satellites first began recording data in 1979. That’s an indicator of climate change as well as an amplifier.

Normally snow and ice reflect a large percentage of sunlight, but the ocean is much less reflective, so it absorbs more heat. When Arctic ice melts, more sunlight gets absorbed, melting more ice and driving a feedback loop.

“There are ways to give a system a nudge and have it amplified into a big shove,” Perovich said.

The Dartmouth MOSAiC participants will use a mix of equipment to take measurements, from simple stakes to check ice thickness to a sophisticated LIDAR (light detection and ranging) system to monitor snow cover. They’ll also deploy autonomous buoys, developed at Dartmouth, to transmit data via satellite.

Dartmouth’s historical connection to the Arctic is tied to two people, said Ross Virginia, director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies. John Ledyard, who attended Dartmouth in the 18th century, attempted to cross northern Russia and into Alaska, though he was deported before completing his journey.

And Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who led four major expeditions to the Arctic, came to the college in 1947. He established a Northern Studies program, helped bring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory to Hanover, and donated a collection of books and letters to the library that, over the years, has grown to become what Virginia calls “the world’s premier collection on the Arctic.”

“Dartmouth has been viewed as a leader in this area for a very long time,” Virginia said.

Because few researchers stay aboard the Polarstern the entire time, expedition members cross-train to continue each other’s measurements throughout the year. This spirit of cooperation is key to gathering data that spans an entire year, and it also encourages different disciplines to share insights as they strive to understand the Arctic as a whole system.

Perovich compares this expedition to shorter, less comprehensive research trips. “Here’s this most complex mystery novel you’ve ever imagined, and each year you read a random chapter and try to put it all together somehow,” he said. “Whereas with MOSAiC, we get to read the whole book from page one to the end, and I think that will really help us understand what’s going on.”

And these long-term measurements, which will be publicly available, are the legacy for MOSAiC, Perovic explained. “We’ll be creating a data set that people will be using for decades afterwards.”

Matt Golec can be reached at mattgolec@gmail.com.

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