Wild Storms and Shifting Ice: Two Explorers Talk About Arctic Life

Since October, the Polarstern, a German research icebreaker, has been frozen in the ice in the Arctic Ocean on a mission to learn more about climate change in the region, the fastest-warming area on the planet.

The Mosaic expedition (shorthand for Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) is organized by the Alfred Wegener Institute and is expected to continue until September. Until then the Polarstern will be drifting with the pack ice for hundreds of miles, near the North Pole and across the Arctic.

About 60 scientists and technicians are on board for two months at a time, taking detailed measurements of the ice and snow, ocean, atmosphere and the organisms small and large that exist in the central Arctic.

In the first few months the expedition encountered wild storms, constantly shifting and cracking ice that made setting up instruments difficult, and the occasional polar bear. Since early October the expedition has been in the polar darkness, with the only illumination coming from lights on the ship and some set up on the ice.

Markus Rex, a climate scientist with the institute and the expedition leader, and Esther Horvath, a photographer who has been documenting the expedition, were on board for the first two months. They left in December on another icebreaker as part of a planned rotation of personnel, and recently came to New York City to talk about the expedition. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

First of all, are you happy to be back on land?

MARKUS REX My feelings are a bit mixed. It was kind of sad to leave the expedition during a key phase — everything was up and running and I just wanted to stay with my precious instruments there on the ice.

But on the other hand, I’m now glad to be back here to see the sun rise every morning. I’m still a bit confused seeing that.

ESTHER HORVATH I really didn’t want to leave the ice floe. It started to become so much home and the only reality in my life. But after the supply vessel arrived and leaving started to become a reality I started to feel, O.K., maybe it’s time to go back to civilization and recharge myself.

What’s it like being in the middle of the frozen Arctic Ocean in the 24-hour polar night?

REX It’s very striking. All the colors disappear — just the white snow and the ice and the black of everything behind, on this completely frozen landscape. There’s a feeling of being on some different planet or moon.

HORVATH You’re on the sea ice, and after a while you forget about it. But then you remind yourself that, no no no, this is one meter of sea ice and you have 4,200 meters of ocean underneath. And you realize this especially when the ice starts to move and there are openings.

Right after I returned I flew to Washington, D.C., and walking on the concrete there I realized, “Wow, I don’t have to watch my step.” Because being outside on the ice in the darkness you always watch your step. You can easily step into a crack.

You are going back for another couple of months in early April, Esther, right?

HORVATH Yes. I think because I knew I was coming back again, I could leave. I knew what I was going to miss the most was the darkness. When I go back it will be 24-hour sun, so it will be very different.

You are going back in April too, Markus. And then you go back one final time, in late summer, as the expedition draws to a close.

REX At that time the ice will be starting to melt. It will be very challenging. We’ll have lots of melt ponds and the ice will become even more unstable than it is now. Depending on the conditions we’ll have to decide on a daily basis whether it’s still safe to work on the ice and then, at some point, just pick up and go.

You’ve been involved in the planning for this expedition for years. Now that it is underway, is there anything that has surprised you?

REX We expected a very dynamic ice surface, with lots of cracks and pressure ridges forming that would force us to reconfigure our research camp frequently. But 2019 was special. It was the warmest summer that we have ever experienced in the Central Arctic, and that of course eroded the sea ice even more. The degree of instability was even more pronounced than I expected.

Pretty much every day during the early part of the expedition, we had formation of new cracks in the ice and these massive events when pressure ridges form, with ice piling up one or two stories high. It happens in minutes and it’s very impressive to see, but it’s annoying for setting up and maintaining our infrastructure on the ice.

Is there anything you can say yet about what the expedition has learned about the Arctic and climate change?

REX We just brought the first hard disks of data back to the mainland a few days ago. People have hardly had time to start to look into it, so I can’t give you any specific results. What we do know is that we now have continuous observations of over 100 key climate parameters. The research camp is in full swing.

The data includes measurements taken before, during and after storms, including a very fierce one that passed through in November. Storms are very important events in the Arctic, and these are the first detailed measurements of the climate processes that occur during them. That is certainly a scientific highlight — it will give us a much better understanding of how storm systems affect the Arctic.

Even in calmer conditions it was bitterly cold, with temperatures as low as minus 34 degrees Celsius (minus 29 Fahrenheit) and wind chill readings into the minus-50s Celsius. Esther, what were the challenges of trying to take photographs in such a harsh environment?

HORVATH In heavy storms I could only go out wearing goggles. It was impossible to see without them because you couldn’t open your eyes. So it would be dark, you’d be wearing goggles and the snow is blowing, and you’d have to look through this little viewfinder. And autofocus doesn’t work in the cold, so you are focusing manually. It was really hard to get anything.

It was also a constant challenge to avoid freezing my hands. Only at the very end of my time there did I figure out a method to be able to be outside for several hours: I wore thin gloves and inside of those I put hand warmers, and over all that I wore huge mittens. I figured out how to use the camera even wearing the mittens. And even if I had to use my fingers to do something, I could quickly do it and then go back into the mittens. They were so warm — we called it a hand sauna.

You were on a ship with about 60 scientists and technicians from many different countries and 40 crew members for two months, surrounded by ice in the polar darkness. Did everyone get along?

HORVATH People always ask me if there are any fights or conflicts, or do you get on each others’ nerves. I never experienced that. I think the reason is we are there with the same mission and with the same love for this environment.

If you were to select 100 random people from anywhere, I think that wouldn’t work. But this passion for climate research and for working in this environment brings people together.

REX We also know that we are a small team, and that the next human is 1,000 kilometers away. We depend on each other so everybody always makes sure we get along.

As an expedition leader, I have to make sure that we don’t lose anybody — people who would fall out of the group and get into a difficult mind-set. If I sense this could happen with someone then I put the person back into the social life of the group to make sure we are one team. It’s not such a big challenge actually. It works very well.

The ship is expected to drift with the ice for another nine months or so, and if all goes as planned should come out in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard in northern Norway. What challenges lie ahead?

REX Right now everything is going extremely well. The research camp is fully established. The drift is pretty much following the predicted drift corridor. We are a little on the Siberian coast side of the corridor, but I’m not worried at all that we won’t go in the direction we want to go.

The ice has become a little more stable now as it has gotten thicker, and cracks are less frequent. The establishment of a runway for our aircraft, one of the big challenges that is coming up, is going well. We have a custom-made ice mill to remove pressure ridges from the runway. It just eats pressure ridges and turns them into heaps of snow that can be moved away. It’s amazing.

So I think we are on a good track.