Tech & Science

Scientists Plan to Freeze a Ship into the Arctic Icepack

In the Magazine
Multi-year sea ice with drainage channels is seen on August 23, 2012 in Nunavut, Canada. These ice floes are in Larsen Sound, part of the Northwest Passage. Pat and Rosemarie Keough/Corbis

Winter in the Arctic is changing rapidly—scientists recently broke the news that the sea ice in the far north covered the puniest area of ocean ever recorded this winter. But it’s still unclear how, exactly, these changes are taking place. That’s partly because most research voyages can only be made in the summer, when waters are navigable and temperatures bearable. But the long, dark days of winter, when weather is erratic and temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, and massive ice floes make navigation dangerous, are exactly when Matthew Shupe wants to be there most.

So Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and a team of experts from several countries and multiple disciplines are working on a plan to freeze a ship full of researchers into the winter ice itself. They’ll arrive at a spot in the northern latitudes in a warmer month and let the winter ice freeze around them. Then they’ll float with the ice pack for an entire year, taking a wide range of measurements from within, beneath and above the ice block as they go. They hope to assemble a comprehensive set of data that would be impossible to collect from anywhere but within the ice itself.

There are dozens of questions for which the scientific world still doesn’t have answers about what’s going on in the Arctic now, Shupe says. “We know very little about clouds, about aerosols in the atmosphere, and the biological activity that’s happening in winter,” all elements that have the potential to change the way models about sea ice are built. Plus there’s the question of the changing ice itself: “If the ice pack is thinner, does it crack in the same way? Does it move in the same way? And does it transfer more heat down to the ocean?”

Shupe hopes to study the impact of clouds on the ice from aboard the frozen-in ship, dubbed the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). “Clouds are one of the huge uncertainties we have, because they’re a very strong control on what energy [from the sun] reaches the surface,” he says. In one respect, more cloud cover could act as a shield, preventing sun from reaching the ice. But on the other hand, it might act as a blanket, keeping the heat trapped closer to the ice. The bright white surface of Arctic ice is “very reflective,” he says, which helps the ice stay colder; but if the sun’s energy bounces off the ice and then gets trapped below the clouds, that cooling mechanism could be sabotaged.

The team is currently planning the trip, slated for 2019, and securing the approximately $65 million in funding it will take to deploy a ship full of 90 people in the hostile Arctic for 13 months. Some pieces are already coming together; The Alfred Wegener Institute, a German research institute, has already committed their icebreaker vessel to the mission, with a medical team and a kitchen staff. (“We’ll be eating some good German food,” Shupe says.) Plus the U.S. Department of Energy plans to provide a suite of instruments to take measurements.

Another research team, from Norway, froze a converted fishing vessel in the Arctic Ocean’s sea last year, but MOSAiC will involve the largest research vessel to embark on a mission like this, and be the most comprehensive in terms of the scope of information it hopes to collect. MOSAiC will have everyone from oceanographers, to physicists, to biogeochemists, to sea ice scientists on board. “There’s a lot of different people with different perspectives,” he says, and it might just help solve the long list of mysteries about an Arctic in flux.