An expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing climate puzzle

Breaking the ice, no less.
Deena Theresa
Verena Mohaupt, group leader, Team Logistics and MOSAiC logistics coordinator.Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Lianna Nixon (CC-BY 4.0)

On September 20, 2019, Research Vessel Polarstern departed from the Norwegian port of Tromsø, bound for the Central Arctic, the focal point of climate change, for the largest Arctic expedition ever.

Led by Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), MOSAiC - Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate - followed in the trail of Norwegian researcher and explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who set sail on the first-ever drift expedition to the geographic North Pole with his wooden sailing ship 'Fram' (Forward). Polarstern was allowed to become trapped in the Arctic ice, and let the forces of nature guide the icebreaker. Over the course of the expedition, which lasted for just over one year, 442 researchers, Polarstern crew members, teachers, and investigators, from around 20 countries (usually working in 2-month rotations) took part. The project was led by atmospheric scientist Markus Rex of AWI.

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Their mission?

Investigate the Arctic climate system and gather climate data that will help deliver more accurate climate models and better forecast how warming could transform the world. Observations were made on the biochemistry and ecosystem of the sea, ice, snow, ocean,  and atmosphere in the Central Arctic. The Polarstein was surrounded by a large base camp, with encampments and equipment anchored directly into the floe, sampling everything from the air, the ice, and the microscopic sea life below.

An expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing climate puzzle
Polarstern in the Arctic ice with research stations in the background.
Source: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Michael Gutsche (CC-BY 4.0)

After a dramatic, eventful year, Polarstern returned to her homeport of Bremerhaven on October 12, 2020, armed with a treasure trove of information that could help generations of climate researchers better represent major processes in models of Earth's systems. This could, in turn, provide additional information on ways to fight climate change.

But, 389 days on the Arctic meant contending with extreme cold, pitch-black darkness, melting ice, polar bears, and the pandemic. 

Thanks to training and preparation, there was only one severe case of frostbite over the year-long mission. Teams of trained "polar bear guards" were posted on the ice floe-based base camp to ward off any bears that came near and protect researchers, who collected samples from stations up to 30 miles away. 

Guardians of the North Pole

“They were there to make sure that we were protected,” says Allison Fong, an AWI biologist and co-leader of MOSAiC’s ecosystem team told Nature, about the logistics team. “Verena is certainly the champion of that.”

The Verena in question is Verena Mohaupt, the logistics coordinator of MOSAiC. 

The perils of being at the North Pole are numerous. "The region in itself is the biggest danger. The extreme cold, the hypothermia hazard is real. The storms, ice cracking...and then, of course, polar bears. They could come up anywhere at all times. We had constant polar bear watches and very often we had to stop work and evacuate everybody back to the ship," Mohaupt tells IE.

Whilst watching out for the others, Mohaupt also took care of herself. Her knitting and a few pomegranates accompanied her on the journey. "Knitting allowed me to switch off from the rigidly structured routines of the workdays when we were almost never alone," she says. "They (the pomegranates) kept in the fridge for months, and then every now and then I celebrated having fresh fruit."

An expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing climate puzzle
A polar bear curiously smells and plays with the GPS on top of the Ocean City ADCP box.
Source: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Lianna Nixon (CC-BY 4.0) 

She had a humongous task ahead of her before the expedition - designing an extensive training course for the participants in which they would learn to ward off the dangers of the Arctic. Some of these potential dangers include escaping from a crashed helicopter, jumping into a Norwegian fjord in their survival suits, and climbing out of the frigid water using their ice picks.

Sounds thrilling. "I didn't plan any of that. I had different dreams of what I wanted to be. And I did not choose any of them," the physicist says. 

A six-year-old Mohaupt wanted to become a firefighter or an astronaut. "A librarian or a ballerina too," Mohaupt pitches in. Though she juggled several career prospects as a child, her interest in environmental issues remained constant and leading her to work for Save the Arctic Campaign of GreenpeaceThis interest is also what led her to become the logistics coordinator of MOSAiC.

Mohaupt, who is still coordinating logistics for polar expeditions, spoke to IE about her impressive line of work. 

Excerpts.

Interesting Engineering: How did you arrive at MOSAiC?

Verena Mohaupt: I didn't plan a career in polar logistics. I chose to study biophysics, as I've always liked science at school. After my studies, I volunteered and worked for Greenpeace in a campaign centered around polar regions, which developed my interest in the Arctic. I then saw this position for a station leader for a French-German research base on Svalbard in Norway and applied right away. I worked two 18-month stints. Later, I applied for the coordination position of MOSAiC. For me it has always been about seeing something you like, learning about it, coming across more such opportunities...sometimes it works out. 

IE: Did you have a template for the training course? Tell us about it.

I had prior polar experience on Svalbard. And that job came with making sure people are safe on the field. So, I was familiar with the procedure, plus my background in science helped me ensure that the research teams had the necessary equipment for the investigations. The mission for MOSAiC was massive, and creating an extensive training course was a huge task. But I was not alone; I had some amazing colleagues. Additionally, I spoke to so many people who had more polar experience than me and gathered a lot of information. 

The training course — mandatory for every participant — took place two days before departure. There were different fields and scientific training to get everybody on the same page. Because you have so many people cooperating on the mission, you need to make sure they have the same procedures. We had field safety training and external safety procedures. We also had members who would act as polar bear guards.

An expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing climate puzzle
ATMOS and Logistics team finally reach the new destination of the flux sled at the first-year ice site. Source: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Lianna Nixon (CC-BY 4.0) 

IE: What was it like to work with the pandemic in the background?

The pandemic happened in the middle of the expedition and did affect us. At some point, for me, it felt like we were playing a game. Which sounds a bit drastic as it's way more than a game. But imagine someone changing the rules in the middle of the game...you have to readjust. The expedition involved participants and ships from all over the world. Airports were closed so planned exchanges via planes didn't work. And to find ships that would do the same [journeys] was time-taking. Mainly, you needed to make sure that you don't bring the virus to the expedition. There was a small hospital and doctor on board but of course, it's not a full-blown hospital. You can't have the virus spreading onboard in that region as that would be the end of the mission. Also, in March 2020 nobody knew what we were dealing with. So it was an absolute necessity that we kept this virus off of the ship. We had days of very strict quarantine involved which included all the participants, the new crew of Polarstern, and two other ships. It worked. 

IE: Working on a mission for the Arctic is stuff that dreams are made of. Did you ever realize the significance of your role in a male-dominated field?

I agree that the ratio wasn't 50-50. Boats, ships, and crews continue to be dominated by men. Even logistics is. But we had a lot of women working on the mission, which is good. I'd say build your network, speak to other women. I was more than grateful that I got the opportunity to be part of this expedition - I'm working very closely with scientists, and what they discover is amazing. Just to be there and get to know these things feels great. I do think it helps that more women are visible in these roles. It shows the world that we can do this stuff too.