Scientific expeditions since the late 19th century have used two approaches for conducting research on the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. One was pioneered by the Norwegian explorer, diplomat, and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, who froze his ship the Fram in the Arctic sea ice off the New Siberian Islands and waited for her to drift westward across the Arctic Ocean during 1893–96.
A second approach was building manned drifting ice stations, named Severny Polyus or “North Pole,” by the Soviet Union starting with NP-1 in 1937, NP-2 in 1950, and running continuously from NP-3 through NP-31 (1954–91). These high-latitude stations were resumed in 2003 by Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI). However, during the past six years AARI has had difficulty finding suitable ice floes for a safe and lasting station.
There have been other notable ice drifts. During the Cold War, the United States conducted Arctic Ocean research and projects using ice stations. From 1997 to 1998, the National Science Foundation funded project SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean), where the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Des Groseilliers was frozen into the sea ice of the Beaufort Sea in October 1997; a yearlong drift produced pioneering Arctic observations. During the International Polar Year (2007–08), the 118-foot polar schooner Tara drifted for more than 2,000 nautical miles in the central Arctic Ocean; the ice drift speed was twice as fast as that recorded by Nansen’s expedition a century earlier. A Russian private expedition and temporary station, the Barneo North Pole Ice Camp, has operated since 2002.
Two upcoming events will mark a new era in studying the Arctic Ocean while drifting in sea ice. The German research icebreaker Polarstern will be frozen into the ice in September 2019 for a yearlong ice drift, the largest scientific expedition ever conducted in the central Arctic Ocean (with an estimated budget at more than $135 million). And in 2020, Russia will commence operation of a new, floating Arctic research platform, replacing its drifting ice stations.
The Polarstern will be the hub for the international Arctic drift expedition MOSAIC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate). Seventeen nations will participate in the expedition, with 600 researchers spending time on board the ship. The Polarstern will be resupplied during its approximately 1,400-nautical-mile voyage by icebreakers from Russia, Sweden, and China. An international consortium of polar research institutions led by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Russia’s AARI, and the University of Colorado designed the expedition. Important to the success of the operation will be the placement of monitoring stations on the sea ice out to 27 nautical miles around the Polarstern. The observations taken during MOSAIC will increase understanding of the climate processes that link the Arctic’s sea ice, ocean, atmosphere, and marine ecosystem.
Russia’s new North Pole station will be a large, self-propelled barge-like vessel with a capacity to house 14 crew and 48 researchers. Roshydromet, the federal meteorological agency whose polar station will be managed by AARI, has reported that the ship will have a length of 223 feet, a beam of 74 feet, and a deadweight of 7,500 tons. The ship’s speed will be a limiting 10 knots, but the key will be using icebreakers to escort and set the floating station into sea ice during autumn. Concept images indicate a large helicopter pad and an array of cranes for research and logistics; no mention has been made of a moon pool—an opening in the vessel’s bottom to lower underwater probes—but it would be surprising if this feature were left out.
Both upcoming ice drift ventures showcase the increasing importance of monitoring the Arctic Ocean. The MOSAIC project, using a large polar icebreaker as a drift station, is not only a complex and large scientific expedition, but also a strong statement of international cooperation. Beyond the gathering of critical environmental observations, operating a floating research platform will provide Russia with an autonomous and continuous presence in the central Arctic Ocean.