Icebreaker Polarstern embarks on year-long mission to study Arctic

On the evening of 20th September, the German icebreaker Polarstern will embark on the most ambitious Arctic expedition ever attempted. It will spend an entire year frozen in the Arctic ice, giving the international team of researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study the region.

Following a decade of planning and preparation, the ship will set sail for the central Arctic escorted by the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov. This area is usually inaccessible but Arctic ice is currently at its lowest annual extent. Gathering year round data is crucial for understanding the changing climate and the interactions between atmosphere, sea ice and ocean as well as biodiversity and ecosystems.

The German icebreaker Polarstern.

Understanding the Arctic is vital – no other region has warmed as much or as quickly. What happens at the poles is key to understanding global climate change.

The MOSAiC expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) entails unprecedented challenges. An international fleet of 4 icebreakers, helicopters and aircraft will supply the team on its epic voyage. A total of 600 international participants, half of which are researchers, will be part of the mission.

Markus Rex, Head of MOSAiC, Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany:

“This mission is ground breaking. Never before has there been such a complex Arctic expedition. For the first time we will be able to measure the climate processes in the Central Arctic in winter. And so for the first time we will be able to understand this region and correctly represent it in climate models. The Arctic is the epicentre of global warming and has already undergone dramatic changes. And it is the weather kitchen for our weather in North America, Europe, and Asia. Extreme weather conditions like outbreaks of cold Arctic air here in winter, or heat waves in summer are linked to the changes in the Arctic. At the same time, the uncertainties in our climate models are nowhere bigger than in the Arctic. There aren’t any reliable prognoses of how the Arctic climate will develop further or what that will mean for our weather. Our mission is to change that.”

The budget for the expedition is roughly 140 million euros. During the course of the year, circa 300 researchers from 17 countries will be on board, from Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. They will be supported on land by researchers from Austria and South Korea.

Matthew Shupe, Co-Lead MOSAiC, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and NOAA in Boulder, Colorado, USA:

“As the Arctic sea ice declines rapidly, we are drawn to the Arctic to understand the drivers and implications of that change. MOSAiC is an outstanding example of the international scientific community joining together to address shared priorities in Arctic research that serve urgent societal needs. Unlike most major projects in the past, MOSAiC is strongly interdisciplinary in nature. Scientists will study physical, chemical, and biological processes that cut across the Arctic atmosphere, sea-ice, and ocean. This expedition is an unprecedented opportunity to make major advances in our understanding and modelling of the emerging Arctic system.”

The questions that the researchers will be investigating during the expedition are closely linked. Together they will study the entire climate system in the Central Arctic for the first time. They will gather data on five subareas: atmosphere, sea ice, ocean, ecosystems and biogeochemistry, in order to gain insights into the interactions that shape the Arctic climate and life in the Arctic Ocean.

You can find the latest news from the Arctic via the MOSAiC channels on Twitter (@MOSAiCArctic) and on Instagram (@mosaic_expedition) using the hashtags #MOSAiCexpedition, #Arctic and #icedrift. There is more information on the expedition at: The MOSAiC web app allows you to follow Polarstern’s drift route live:

Research Focuses


Complex cloud processes and snow fall, sun and heat radiation, eddies and small vortices, air temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius and a comparatively warm ocean below, with only a thin layer of cracked ice separating it from the atmosphere. MOSAiC will investigate how these and many other factors together affect the heat balance and the Arctic climate.

Sea Ice

The Arctic sea ice is changing. The MOSAiC expedition will monitor the lifecycle of the ice for an entire year – how it forms, alters, drifts and cracks, how it thaws, and how, as it does so, it determines the energy flow between the air and the water.


The Arctic Ocean is not an isolated body of water. MOSAiC will investigate which currents and vortices in the ocean transport heat to the Arctic and carry it to the surface there; the relationship between the ocean, atmosphere and ice; and how they interact during the course of an entire year.


How do Arctic life forms survive extreme cold, solid ice cover and months of darkness during the polar night, and what sort of metabolisms do they have? The MOSAiC expedition will explore this mystery of life, which continues under what appear to be extremely adverse conditions, throughout a complete annual cycle.


What’s in the Arctic Ocean doesn’t stay in the Arctic Ocean: The ocean, ice and atmosphere are constantly exchanging gases, leading to, among other things, changes in cloud characteristics. During a complete annual cycle, MOSAiC will monitor these gases and other important chemical compounds in the water, ice and air.

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