19 March 2020
After more than 20 years of doing polar fieldwork one thing I have learned is that delays are an inevitable part of any field campaign. That seems to be truer than ever with my MOSAiC work so far. First, our transit from Norway to the Polarstern, on the Russian icebreaker Dranitsyn, took two weeks longer than expected due to stormy weather and relatively thick sea ice. Once we arrived at the Polarstern, Gina and I made good progress assembling and testing our DataHawk drones. Last Wednesday we setup our drone base of operations at met city, the portion of the ice floe where all of the meteorological instruments are located. That afternoon, after we were back on the Polarstern, we saw that a lead, or crack in the sea ice, had formed between met city and the Polarstern. This lead made it very difficult to get to met city and also disrupted the power supply from the ship to met city. This meant that trying to flying our drones from met city had become much more difficult just hours after we had finished our final setup before flights could begin.
Caption: Scientists work on both sides of a lead that opened between met city and the Polarstern. The ship’s helicopter was used to ferry people across the lead, which was about 5 meters wide at this time.
Over the next several days the ice continued to shift and new leads seemed to open on a daily basis. Sea ice normally cracks and deforms under the influence of ocean currents, wind and storms, forming leads where the ice spreads out and ridges where the ice is pushed together. The thinner ice, that has become more common in the last couple of decades, is even more susceptible to these types of movement than the thicker ice that used to be present in the Arctic at this time of year. This combined with the stormy weather we’ve been experiencing is the perfect recipe for leads to form.
Caption: This is near the edge of the largest lead (over 100 meters wide) that has opened by the Polarstern in the last week. As is common with leads that form at this time of year a thin layer of new ice forms almost as soon as the thicker ice spreads out and exposes the ocean to the cold atmosphere. The far edge of this lead is visible near the horizon on the left side of this photograph.
With these new leads Gina and I had to rethink our plans for flying our drones from met city. Instead we decided to setup a large tent, closer to the Polarstern than met city, that we could use as a base for our drone flights. We setup this tent on Monday and dubbed this new site on the MOSAiC ice floe Droneville.
Caption: Gina and I posing with our tent at Droneville. Our tent is about 200 meters from the Polarstern, which can be seen behind us.
Caption: This photograph shows the ice and leads near the Polarstern on Tuesday (18 March). The large lead that has opened near the MOSAiC ice floe is the wide area of smooth ice in the background on the left side of this photograph. A new lead, that opened extending from the bow of the Polarstern, is seen in the foreground. The small yellow tent, just right of the center of this photograph, is Droneville. Behind and to the right of the tent met city is visible, with a 10 meter tower seen sticking up from the ice. Since this photograph was taken another lead has opened just behind the Droneville tent.
On Tuesday the weather was relatively nice, but instead of flying, Gina and I helped out the other ATMOS team members to recover instruments from met city that were threatened by the leads and ridges that had formed at that site. With large projects like MOSAiC teamwork is essential and rescuing these instruments was a priority for the overall MOSAiC effort.
We have now entered another several day period of stormy weather, with strong winds, that is keeping us from doing our first DataHawk flights. This morning, when I went up to the bridge, I saw a dark line running just behind our Droneville tent, but through the blowing snow it was difficult to see the details of what this was. Gina and I, along with several other people went out to Droneville in 35 mph winds to get a closer look. A new lead had formed just 10 meters behind our tent. This lead does not appear to be threatening our tent currently but we did have to remove the powerline that provided electricity to our tent, since it was running across the lead. So, once again, we are facing another setback in our attempts to begin our drone flight operations. The weather is forecast to improve by Saturday and we are hopeful that we will finally be able to begin flying then.
Caption: The lead that formed just behind our Droneville tent wasn’t very large. Here, we are inspecting this lead to determine if we can get across it safely and if it is posing a threat to our tent.
Caption: The morning we went out to inspect the Droneville lead was cold (-11 deg F) and windy (35 mph). After 2 hours spent outside I had formed a near complete coating of ice on my hat and face mask. At these temperatures, with such strong winds, it is essential to keep exposed skin to a minimum, hence only my eyes are uncovered.
Caption: The strong winds with our latest storm results in lots of blowing snow and reduced visibility on the sea ice. Here, the Polarstern is just visible from Droneville through the blowing snow.
Aside from these delays to our drone research several other things have happened in the last week. First, last Saturday was the first time we saw the sun since we started sailing north from Norway in early February. As I do most mornings, I went up to the bridge of the ship after I woke up, to look over the ice and check the weather. Much to my surprise the sun was low on the horizon in the eastern sky. I had expected a cloudy day, so even though I knew the sun had officially risen for the first time a couple of days earlier, I wasn’t expecting to see it. I hadn’t realized that I had missed seeing the sun over the last month but walking onto the bridge and seeing a small orange ball floating above the icy horizon was an emotional experience. Seeing it, and its golden light, illuminating our cold ice floe brought a smile to my face and made our Arctic home seem a little less hostile and forbidding.
Caption: This was the first time I had seen the sun in over a month, even though the sun had risen a couple of days earlier. In 8 more days the sun will no longer set again until the fall.
The other, and biggest, event in the last week has been the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the imposition of travel restrictions around the world. While we are safe from the virus on the Polarstern we are still feeling the impacts of it. First, our families, friends and loved ones are at home dealing with a rapidly changing, and unprecedented medical and social situation. It is hard knowing that they are home facing this crisis while we are locked in ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean unable to help them. The second impact from the virus, for us, has to do with the end of our leg of the MOSAiC expedition and the arrival of the leg 4 participants. Due to the worldwide travel restrictions the leg 4 personnel are unable to travel to Europe for their transfer to the Polarstern as originally scheduled at the end of March. This means that our leg of the expedition will last longer than expected. Because of the uncertainty of how the virus, and related restrictions, will evolve over the next weeks there is no timeline for when our leg of MOSAiC will end. What I had expected to be a 3 month field campaign is now looking to be at least 4 months long. It was a difficult decision for me to take part in the MOSAiC expedition and to be away from my family for 3 months and now having to be away from them for an unknown additional length of time is creating a lot of additional stress.
But, we will hope for the situation with the virus to become less difficult and dangerous, and we know that eventually we will return home to our families.