10 March 2020

It’s been a week since I moved onto the Polarstern and it has been a busy week. The Dranitsyn arrived at the MOSAiC ice floe on February 28th and the next 4 days were occupied with the transfer between the leg 2 scientists that had been on the Polarstern since December, and the leg 3 scientists that had just arrived on the Dranitsyn. For the scientists this involved meeting with colleagues that were working on similar projects and learning how all of the research was done on the previous leg of MOSAiC. For Gina and I this transition period mostly involved being shown around the ship and the meteorological observation area, called met city, on the ice floe and finding all of the cargo that had arrived on the Polarstern before us.

Caption: Here I am standing on the MOSAiC ice floe with the Polarstern in he background. The sea ice is about 6 feet thick and below that is more than 12,000 feet of Arctic Ocean. The sea ice surface mostly just looks like snow covered ground but small cracks and larger leads have been forming in the area since we arrived and are a constant reminder that our home is floating, dynamic sea ice and not solid ground.

Caption: There are lots of different scientific instruments deployed on the ice floe around the Polarstern. The meteorological instruments are located on one part of the ice floe called met city. This photo shows several of the instrument towers, a small hut where computers and other sensitive equipment operates and two people working and watching for polar bears. The twilight colors on the horizon last all day when the sky is clear.

We moved into our cabins on the Polarstern last Tuesday, while the leg 2 scientists moved onto the Dranitsyn. The Dranitsyn remained anchored at the MOSAiC ice floe through the end of last week as the last bits of cargo were transferred between the ships and the leg 2 scientists finalized the last parts of their handover to their leg 3 counterparts. Last Thursday night we had a farewell party on the ice floe for the leg 2 people that were leaving. It was a cold night, with temperatures near -40 deg F, but fortunately there wasn’t much wind. Everyone had a good time and we even had a couple of campfires on the ice that were burning in metal barrels. Sadly, no one remembered to bring marshmallows to make smores.

Caption: Farewell party for the leg 2 personnel. This was definitely the coldest campfire I’ve ever been at.

I’m enjoying life on the Polarstern. The cabins are small but comfortable and the meals are more varied than we had on the Dranitsyn. My favorite food related change is the afternoon cake that is served at 3:30. We didn’t have any bakery products on the Dranitsyn so getting to have a piece of cake or pastry every day is a real treat. There are two mess halls on the ship. One where the officers and the scientists normally eat and another where the crew eat. The mess halls are small with just 6 or 7 tables so at meal times not everyone can eat at once. There is a lounge next to the mess hall so if you arrive for a meal and all of the seats in the mess hall are full you can wait in the lounge until a space opens up. Because there are only about 100 people onboard the sense of community is much stronger than you have at home. Everyone knows everyone else and as a result we don’t worry about things being stolen. People leave their computers, phones and other valuables around without any concern. In fact, everyone leaves their cabin doors open all day. The rule onboard is that you don’t knock on a closed cabin door since the crew works shifts around the clock. Instead, if you are awake you leave your cabin door open so people know that they can knock and come in if they want to talk with you.

Unlike on the Dranitsyn we are all much busier now and so there are fewer social activities occurring in the evenings. We still have a daily all-hands meeting each night to review what happened during the day and to discuss plans for the next day’s work. The ship bar is open three nights a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and the scientists are responsible for working behind the bar. Like on the Dranitsyn there is a gym, pool and sauna onboard the Polarstern and I’ve been making a point to get to the gym every day for my daily bike ride. It is so nice to be able to keep some aspects of my normal routine even when I’m so far away from home.

Another change from the Dranitsyn is that there are two Iridium satellite phones available for general use. You can buy pre-paid calling cards from the ship’s communication officer and then make calls to anywhere in the world. After not being able to talk with my wife and daughter for the last few weeks it was so nice to call and hear their voices again.

Gina and I have some workspace in one of the labs on the ship and this is where we’ve been spending time assembling and testing the DataHawk drones that we will fly. We have 15 DataHawks onboard, and these will be used for our leg of MOSAiC as well as the next two legs. Gina and I have assembled 3 of the DataHawks, which are small, foam airplanes. The wings come off of the plane for shipping and the meteorological instruments are also removed to keep them safe in transit. Our first task was to assemble the planes and install the instruments. Once we had the planes assembled and the LiPo batteries that power them charged we did some ground testing of the aircraft.

Caption: Here I am holding one of the DataHawk drones that Gina and I assembled over the last week. I’m in the wet lab on the ship where Gina and I spend most of our work time.

The ground testing involved running through all of our regular pre-flight routine that we’d do before any flight. We have a 6 page flight checklist that we go through that lists each step we need to take before and during a flight. For our ground test we powered up each of the DataHawks we had assembled and made sure that they were communicating, via an Xbee radio, with the ground control laptop that we’ll use to monitor the planes during a flight. From the ground control computer we can monitor all of the instruments on the plane as well as information from the plane autopilot.

One important item we needed to verify with these tests was that the autopilot was getting a reliable GPS and compass signal. Being so far north the GPS satellites are relatively low in the sky and this can result in a weaker GPS signal and poorer location information than we get at home. Compasses don’t work as well close to the poles since the magnetic field lines that allow a compass to point north are almost vertical rather than nearly horizontal at lower latitudes. This means there is less “pull” on the compass to ensure that it is pointing in the right direction. Fortunately, the GPS and compass worked well during our DataHawk ground tests.

With those tests completed we are now ready to start our research flights. But, as is often the case with doing field work, especially in the polar regions, the weather has had other plans for us. For the last several days we’ve had stormy weather with temperatures between -30 and -40 deg F, winds of 20 to 30 mph and wind chill temperatures from -50 to almost -75 deg F. Normally, we can fly the DataHawks in winds up to 20 mph but for our first flights we want to wait for lighter winds to make sure everything is working as expected . It looks like the strong winds will be with us for another couple of days, but hopefully we’ll be able to start doing our research flights soon.


One comment on “Life on the Polarstern

  • Hi John!
    That is truly amazing. I can’t imagine working in those temperatures. Truly living a dream. Though I know you miss your family.
    Stay safe. Love of love from your cousins,
    Sandy and John

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