Arctic Researchers On An Expedition To Study Shrinking Polar Ice : Short Wave Our journey continues on MOSAiC: the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. Physicists, chemists, and biologists are all working to understand more about why Arctic ice is diminishing, and what it means for the planet. In this episode, Reporter Ravenna Koenig introduces us to some scientists, what they're studying, and life aboard a floating research center. You can find photos from her trip here. Follow Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia or Ravenna @vennkoenig. Email the show at

A Polar Expedition To The Top Of The World: Part 2

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Maddie Sofia here. Today, the second of our two-part adventure to the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where scientists are freezing a ship into the ice for a year to study how the region is changing. On Friday, we talked about how the expedition tracked down their hard-to-find piece of ice, and today we'll be talking about what happened once they found it. Reporter Ravenna Koenig is our guide. Hey, Ravenna.


SOFIA: And would you just remind us the mouthful name of this thing?

KOENIG: Sure. It's called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or MOSAiC.

SOFIA: I guess MDOSAiC would not have the same ring, I guess.

KOENIG: I guess not (laughter).

SOFIA: So you're back on land in Seattle now, but you joined this expedition for five weeks as it left a port in Norway.


SOFIA: There's that horn.

KOENIG: There's that horn.

SOFIA: And it sailed up north.

KOENIG: That's right. And onboard were scientists from all kinds of fields of study, all joining forces to undertake the most comprehensive look at Arctic sea ice in 20 years.


KOENIG: That's what it sounded like as our boat plowed through the sea ice as we looked for an ice floe that was thick enough to call home base for an entire year. That ice, of course, is slowly shrinking as the Arctic gets warmer. And the primary question MOSAiC is trying to answer is what are the causes of that diminishing Arctic ice and what are the consequences?

SOFIA: So today, a look at the physics, chemistry and biology on the MOSAiC expedition.


SOFIA: OK, Ravenna, so we're going to dig into the science MOSAiC is doing in a second. But first, I just have some, you know, basic human questions about what it was like living on a ship for over five weeks. Paint us a picture.

KOENIG: Yeah. So we were on this Russian research vessel that was assisting with the setup of the experiment. It was a pretty big ship - over 450 feet - longer than a football field.

SOFIA: It's a lot of boat.

KOENIG: It's a lot of boat. There were about 80-some other expedition folks on the ship as well - scientists, grad students, a few other journalists, and then the crew, who were all Russian.


KOENIG: We were really in our own world. We could get WhatsApp messages and some limited emails, but there was no Googling, no Netflix, no cell service.

SOFIA: So it was the late '90s is what you're telling me.

KOENIG: (Laughter) Basically the late '90s. You had to, like - sometimes, you would have to, like, arrange to meet somebody somewhere on the ship. Like, I had that experience of being like, OK, I'll see you in such and such a place at such and such a time. And then you just have to be there.

SOFIA: That sounds hard.

KOENIG: But this was my first time living on a ship like this. And honestly, I had a lot of questions in the beginning about just how to do that. And I was not the only one.

MICHEL TSAMADOS: What's the procedure for vomiting? Best to do it in your toilet?


TSAMADOS: In the toilet, right?

SOFIA: God, I love scientists so much, Ravenna. What is the procedure for vomiting on this boat?

KOENIG: Well, I didn't vomit and I actually don't know anybody else who did because, you know, we - by the time we got to the ice, things actually evened out. So there was only a part at the beginning where things were really wavy. But, yeah - like, in your toilet, overboard? It was sort of an open question. And the person asking it that you just heard was ice expert Michel Tsamados, who was also out on his first expedition at sea. There was also a learning curve for other stuff. Some of it was Russian specific, like how to say hello. Russian ice specialist Anna Timofeeva taught us some of that.

ANNA TIMOFEEVA: If you want to be more polite, you should say (speaking Russian). OK, (speaking Russian).


KOENIG: And then just getting to know all these new people who we were living with in this small space for weeks on end. We had basically three common rooms to hang out in, and we shared our cabins with at least one other person. So we were around each other a lot.

SOFIA: Yeah. Sounds a little tight, to be honest.

KOENIG: (Laughter) Yeah. At times, it did feel small. But, you know, we were also in the middle of this spectacular ice wilderness. So we spent a lot of time on deck just sort of gaping at this gorgeous landscape. And we saw all kinds of amazing things like, for example...


KOENIG: ...Polar bears padding along the distance on the ice the ship was driving through. And then a few times we saw the northern lights.

Oh, wow. Look at that streak right there - just like bright filaments of light very dynamic across the sky. It's super cool.

SOFIA: My jealousy knows no limits, Ravenna.

KOENIG: Well...

SOFIA: The northern lights?

KOENIG: The northern lights - it was pretty cool.

SOFIA: OK, so you're in the Arctic Ocean, seeing bears, looking for a piece of ice to basically dock into. You find it. Then what?

KOENIG: So on the Polarstern, the German icebreaker that's going to be drifting with the ice for the whole year, they started setting up this huge science camp on that main floe that they picked. Meanwhile, on my vessel, the scientists geared up to put out this network of scientific equipment on different pieces of ice around that central point. They ranged from, like, a mile and a half to about 30 miles away from it. And those will give them context for the measurements they're taking at the main site.

SOFIA: Gotcha (ph). So you actually went out onto the ice and talked to them about what they were collecting?

KOENIG: I did. We would line up at the start of the day and sign out of the ship's logbook.

That's me. K-O-E-N-I-G, Ravenna.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, OK. Thank you. You can go in on ice.


And then we'd go down these big metal stairs to the ice...


KOENIG: ...Where all these scientists were working at different stations to install equipment that will help them better understand the warming Arctic.

TIM STANTON: Up into the hole. Going down, Chris.

SOFIA: So just to underscore the context here, the Arctic has changed a lot over the past few decades. It's warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. And all the ice that used to be on the Arctic Ocean year-round is shrinking, and it's getting a lot thinner.

KOENIG: That's right. And scientists want to better understand how this new Arctic works, but that's a super-complex puzzle. So hundreds of researchers will be on the MOSAiC expedition digging into different pieces of that puzzle over the next year. One of them is an ocean physicist whose voice you heard a second ago. He's got a great accent and an even better sense of humor. His name's Tim Stanton.

STANTON: OK. I've got to just...


STANTON: ...Get the hair dryer.

KOENIG: Oh, a hair dryer?

STANTON: Well, it's a electrical - what do you call it? - heat gun. Frizzy hair, that's for sure.

KOENIG: Tim was using the heat gun to warm up electrical connectors on a science buoy that he was installing.

SOFIA: Science buoy.

KOENIG: Science buoy - that's the official name. It was a pretty chilly day the day I was out on the ice with him - about 18 degrees Fahrenheit. And the buoy took about eight hours to put into place on the ice, which is a normal workday in an office, but outside in those temperatures, it's pretty grueling.

SOFIA: Yeah. That's some real commitment to the advancement of knowledge right there. I appreciate it.

KOENIG: But the cool thing is that once Tim installed the buoy, it operates more or less independently out there throughout the year. It collects data from all sorts of scientific bells and whistles that hang below it in the water.

STANTON: The flux package mounts on here, and that's what gauges the transport of heat, salt and momentum in the water column.

SOFIA: Heat, salt and momentum - what's he talking about here, Ravenna?

KOENIG: Right. So sea ice is made up of water that is less salty than ocean water.


KOENIG: So as it melts in the summertime, it contributes fresher water to the top of the ocean. The difference in salinity, or saltiness, between those two layers can make a barrier that traps that melted ice water at the top of the ocean. And if that water gets trapped, Stanton thinks it can absorb a lot more heat from the sun and lead to even more melting of the ice.

STANTON: You can get these fresh, warm layers that, when a little bit of wind comes along does a little bit of mixing, really melts the heck out of the ice.

KOENIG: He thinks this might play an important role in why the sea ice is disappearing as fast as it is.

SOFIA: Interesting. OK, so you've got this guy looking specifically at, like, ocean saltiness or salinity. What are other sorts of things people are digging into?

KOENIG: So like I said, there are hundreds of scientists working on this thing. They're looking at the ocean, the atmosphere and the ice from the perspectives of physics, chemistry and biology. Because all those things are linked together, if one is changing, it's potentially leading to changes in others. I'll give you an example - or I'll let this lady do it.

JESSIE CREAMEAN: My friends always joke that I'm Dr. Cloud.

KOENIG: Dr. Cloud, also known as Jessie Creamean...

CREAMEAN: You know, every atmospheric scientist who does clouds has, like, their list of favorite clouds.

KOENIG: For the record, her favorite clouds are Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, which look like ocean waves.

SOFIA: Very respectable choice.

KOENIG: Very respectable choice. So Jessie's particular focus is actually these tiny particles in the atmosphere that help clouds form. They're called aerosols. And I watched her test a device she'll be using to collect and count those aerosols out on the ice.

CREAMEAN: Little aerosol sampler, do well today.

KOENIG: Aerosols can be dust, pollen, fungi just to name a few. And in the Arctic, scientists think they can also come from tiny organisms in the water, like bacteria or algae.

SOFIA: OK. So how does this connect back to ice?

KOENIG: Well, Jessie's hypothesis is that if there's open water where ice used to be, it could mean more of these tiny particles in the ocean could get blown from the ocean into the atmosphere and see more clouds. And clouds actually play an important role in regulating temperature.

CREAMEAN: That affects how much heat can basically help melt the sea ice or it can actually reflect sunlight from the sea ice. So it has a big role in controlling how much sea ice we have here.

SOFIA: OK, so we're looking at ocean salinity, cloud formation - hundreds of other scientists on this expedition doing their own very specific work. Help us understand how all of this adds up to better understanding climate change, not just in the Arctic, but, like, more broadly.

KOENIG: It's a good question. And I'm going to enlist Matthew Shupe, one of the leaders of the expedition, to help answer it.

MATTHEW SHUPE: This whole project is aimed at improving our models.

KOENIG: So when Matthew says models, he means the computer simulations scientists use to get estimates for all kinds of things. One example is how much the earth could warm in the next 50 years. The better you reflect reality in those simulations, the better prediction you'll get.

SOFIA: Sure. That makes sense.

KOENIG: But because this region is so logistically challenging and expensive to get to and to work in, there's a huge data gap there.

SOFIA: Scientists will not stand for gaps in data, Ravenna. They will not.

KOENIG: They will not. But anyways, Matthew says, as a result, the simulations for how the Arctic will respond to climate change vary a lot.

SHUPE: The Arctic is a place where the models agree the least, so that tells us that we're missing something.

KOENIG: And so that's really what they're there to do - try to nail down some of the missing pieces in their understanding of how the Arctic works so they can better represent it in models.

SOFIA: So you mentioned how models help scientists project global temperature. Is the idea that this data will help them with that?

KOENIG: Yeah. Improving models will help with that and a bunch of other things. Some of them are regionally relevant - for example, improving ice forecasts on the Arctic Ocean. But then on a global scale, improving models means improving projections for things like how fast the Greenland ice sheet might melt, adding to global sea level rise. And then there's also this area of ongoing debate in the scientific community about how changes in the Arctic may affect midlatitudes in other ways.

SHUPE: As the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe, that modifies the large-scale circulation and can lead to things like more extreme weather at lower latitudes.

KOENIG: For example, some researchers think that the extreme cold temperatures the Northeast and Midwest United States saw last winter could be linked to changes in the Arctic. And they hope that the information collected on this expedition will contribute to a better understanding of those possible linkages.

SOFIA: Big questions, Ravenna.

KOENIG: Yeah, big questions.

SOFIA: Ravenna, thanks so much for braving the cold and sacrificing the Internet for 40 days to bring us this story.

KOENIG: Thanks for having me.

SOFIA: And if you want to see reporter Ravenna Koenig's pictures from the MOSAiC expedition, they're up on We have a link in our episode notes. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.