Even though the work on the ice floe is difficult and requires flexibility and perseverance, SLF doctoral student Amy Macfarlane never loses heart. She enjoys the unique landscape, is delighted about the return of light and appreciates the good team spirit. Nevertheless, she would like to be able to go outside again without her heavy polar suit on. But it is still unclear when she will be able to return to warmer regions.

After spending a month in 24 hour darkness onboard the icebreaker “Dranitsyn”, it was an extremely special moment when we saw “Polarstern’s” light on the horizon. For myself it was the first time seeing the ship, so I am lucky that my snow colleague and ICE team leader Stefanie Arndt has had 10 previous “Polarstern” expeditions, and calls the ship her second home.

The handover period ran smoothly, and in no time myself and Stefanie felt ready to take responsibility of the snow measurements for leg 3 of the MOSAiC expedition. The work was new and exciting. Orientation of the ice was getting easier and easier as we had 24 hours sunrise/sunsets which painted the sky in beautiful colours all day and allowed a first glimpse of the previously dark central ice floe set-up. I think this was my favorite period regarding light conditions.

After being onboard “Polarstern” for a week, the ice started to change for the first time. As we started our journey away from “Polarstern” for the morning snowpit, we noticed three cracks in the ice. All three were about half a meter wide. Each member of the group took it in turns to excitedly jump over, then pull the sledges after us. Looking back now this was the start of the ice breaking up and the start of many troubles regarding working on the ice and accessing our field sites. So I think of this moment as a lovely gentle introduction to sea ice work and the beginning of our education regarding ice dynamics. A small crack can develop into a wide lead in a few minutes. We could have an evacuation from the ice at any point and have to stop work due to unstable ice conditions. Any plans need to be completely flexible and made hourly as the environment changes so fast!

Cracks and leads have damaged part of the area on the ice where the measurements originally began.

We have lost a large number of snowpit sites as the observatory is getting increasingly destroyed by ridges and leads. However, this provides us with an opportunity for different measurement approaches and we often have to improvise with accessing an existing site or creating a new timeseries in another location. We have a great team currently on board and everyone is working extremely hard in such difficult conditions.

Amy and her colleagues digging a snow profile, a cross-section through the snowpack. Cracks that open up in the ice force researchers to remain flexible and to constantly look for new locations for their sampling.

In summary we are currently overcoming four main problems:

  1. The ice conditions affecting our scientific work and projects. Instability of the boat mooring onto the ice often means the gangway can’t be lowered and we can’t access the ice.
  2. We are drifting south very fast.
  3. Regular storm events and strong winds limit work on the ice but are also often used as a fun endurance activity.
  4. Our return home date is uncertain regarding travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we currently don’t have a way of landing any planes on our runway which has undergone lots of shearing and ridging in the ice conditions.
The participants of the third leg of the journey with the “Polarstern” in the background.

We are probably one of the largest gatherings – about 100 people on board – currently in the world which is a strange thought for us considering how remote we are. A few people on board are finding the uncertainty of the situation difficult and often meetings are stressful. However, spirits are lifted with regular birthday celebrations (5 last week!), evening hikes, board game evenings, and working on the ice together really gives us a way to appreciate the environment we are in. We even had the opportunity to go camping last week which was such an amazing experience… -30 degrees and 24 hours of daylight meant that my 4 am to 5 am polar bear guarding duty was no different to working in the middle of the day.

Meanwhile onboard, we are investigating solutions to our return home, which is currently extremely difficult for Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) to organize. There are currently a few options which allow us to return around June, however any dates are still uncertain. We are overcoming daily challenges and personally I’m finding the work here extremely rewarding and look forward to the next few months on board. However the idea of summer arriving and going outside in a T-shirt without all the heavy layers is very appealing to me!

Amy Macfarlane is a PhD student at WSL. This field note relates to her participation in leg 3 of the MOSAiC expedition as part of the project team SnowMOSAiC co-funded by the Swiss Polar Institute.

The SnowMOSAiC team has posted more information on its participation in the MOSAiC expedition on a dedicated blog.

Header photograph: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Michael Gutsche (CC-BY-4.0)