The Largest Arctic Science Expedition in History Finds Itself on Increasingly Thin Ice

In March 2019, at a crowded happy hour in Boulder, Colorado, I sat listening to Matt Shupe, an atmospheric scientist, describing his decades-long dream that was about to come true. 

He was sprinting to finish the years of planning and preparations required to freeze an icebreaker into the Arctic Ocean ice as close to the North Pole as it could get. The vessel would drift with the ice for a year as a rotating cast of nearly 600 experts from 20 nations representing dozens of scientific disciplines spread out in research camps around the ship. 

“It’s kind of like a work of art—a manifestation of something that was an idea at some point, and now it’s actually real,” Shupe told me of his Arctic daydream that had turned into a full-time obsession. “It was my life story for the last 10 or more years.”

Even the name suggested an artwork. MOSAiC—the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate—would be the largest Arctic research expedition in history, a $155 million mission to observe how the rapidly warming Arctic and its fast diminishing sea ice are affecting the atmosphere high above the expedition, the water below it and the weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The warming of the Arctic was driving some of the most profound changes to the world’s climate. But the region’s inaccessibility made it less understood by science than just about anywhere else on the planet. 

MOSAiC, which launched last September, hopes to fill that gap with the most detailed study ever of the polar sea, its atmosphere and the pack ice that functions something like a giant eggshell over the top of the Earth to modulate interactions between them. And all of this would take place over an uninterrupted year and document every aspect of a single, sprawling raft of that ice. 

“Capturing a full year is one of the essential aspects of the expedition,” Shupe said. “We really need to capture that full cycle of the life of the ice.”

Then, in March—six months into the expedition—the coronavirus triggered calamity. Shupe, who had returned from MOSAiC last winter and wasn’t due to return to the ship until the summer, was desperately trying to get back, hoping to keep the coronavirus and the rapidly melting Arctic from turning his dream expedition into a frozen nightmare. 

But the virus had sequestered both of us in our homes, a few miles away from one another in Colorado. MOSAiC seemed as distant as a moonshot as it struggled with both the blessing and the curse of its isolation in the ice. 

Stranded on the Polarstern icebreaker, more than a hundred people worried about family members back home threatened by the pandemic while themselves facing the possibility of being marooned until June. 

“There are some people that are having a hard time and they definitely want to come home,” Shupe told me over Skype. “Some people say, ‘Let’s take the ship home right now…Let’s just be done with this.'” 

But Shupe and his colleagues in Germany spearheading the expedition had far too much invested in MOSAiC’s multi-disciplinary team and year-long mission to pull the plug. “I do not want to bring this to an end,” he said.

How would they save the expedition? 

Scruffy Mountain-town Climate Chic 

Slender with tousled hair, a thin beard and, as often as not in the winter, a stocking cap pulled down above his black-framed glasses, Shupe has the scruffy mountain-town chic common among climate scientists. 

Creating MOSAiC required Shupe, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to be both a diplomat and a mechanic. 

He’d spent years in conference rooms overseas negotiating with researchers from the other nations participating in the project, particularly those from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, which is leading the project and providing the icebreaker that serves as its basecamp.

He was more comfortable, however, in the parking lot at Boulder’s NOAA office, where he was building giant sleds, each equipped with instruments worth $100,000, that would slide across the ice pack to distant expedition outposts. When we met at happy hour, six months before the expedition was to depart, he was just finishing the first sled, which took him nearly a year. He had two more to build.

Looking for the Right Ice

When the Polarstern sailed in September toward the pole from Tromsø, Norway, Shupe and his three sleds were on board. In October, it tied onto the thickest piece of ice the scientists could find and froze in place. 

The Polarstern’s 20,000 horsepower engines can push the 387-foot, 12,012-ton vessel through ice up to five feet thick; its double steel hulls can ram through even thicker floes. The icebreaker hauls helicopters, snowmobiles and snow-shaping tractors called Pistenbullies. A computer system connects and backs up the work of the ship’s nine laboratories, focused on everything from chemistry to ocean acoustics to fish biology.

The ship’s voyage toward the pole was timed for when the ice was at its lowest level, allowing the Polarstern to cut as far north as possible hunting for thick ice. But even deep in the pack, finding an appropriately hefty floe on which to build the sprawling research village proved challenging.

Most of the ice the crew encountered had just formed during the previous year. Such first-year ice is not as thick or dense as multi-year ice, which was more common in decades past.

The first rotation of researchers on the Polarstern used satellites and a helicopter to hunt for the right floe, which needed to be at least four feet thick to support their work. A second icebreaker helped in the search and teams of scientists on the ice drilled cores and measured the ice with electromagnetic sensors.

Most of the ice was too thin or spongy underneath to provide a foundation for the mission, but an oval floe about a mile and a half by two miles was promising. They christened a section that in places was more than 13 feet thick, “the fortress” and built their ice camp there.

Scientists set up outposts for each focus of the expedition, with roads and cables connecting this “central observatory” back to the icebreaker. In addition to Met City, where the atmospheric scientists and meteorologists working with Shupe were based, there was Ocean City, Ice City and ROV City, which managed remote-controlled submarine research. Balloon Town was the home of a red tethered blimp nicknamed “Miss Piggy” that measured ozone, aerosols and turbulence above the expedition. Remote controlled airplanes and helicopters flew from Droneville to sample the air closer to the ice.

Soon after the crew of Polarstern had selected the ice floe it would call home, the scientists finished installing the sprawling “distributed network” of monitoring stations and instruments with the help of another icebreaker, the Akademik Fedorov.

“It may not be the perfect floe, but it’s the best one in this part of the Arctic…,” Markus Rex, a professor from the Alfred Wegener Institute who is leading the expedition, said in October. “We’ll have to wait and see if it’s also stable enough to withstand the autumnal storms that are now brewing.

Finding Someone Who Shared the Dream

For Shupe, realizing his dream of spending a year on a vessel drifting with the Arctic ice turned on connecting with Rex’s colleague Klaus Dethloff, another professor at the institute who shared that dream. Dethloff, a climate modeler, recognized that the dearth of knowledge about the remote region was handicapping  models of weather and climate in the mid-latitudes. 

Shupe convinced Dethloff that, rather than observing a year of just atmospheric processes, the expedition should be multidisciplinary, and include the study of everything from the ecosystem to the chemistry of the ocean, ice and atmosphere. 

“The ice, the ocean, the ecosystem—how do you put all those pieces together?” Shupe said. “All those concepts were things that I had originally put into this kind of overarching design.”

Shupe evangelized the concept at conferences and in publications, but progress came slowly. “For many years, it was just frustrating,” he recalled of the years of frowns and skeptical questions he confronted. “It was a horrible process. You’re trying to find big money and people are just saying no, left and right, or they’re giving you bad attitude. I’m just beat down.”

Traction finally came at a meeting of the International Arctic Science Committee in 2014, where Shupe was allowed five minutes to describe his dream. “They have people sitting around this big horseshoe with a flag from each nation,” he recalled.

The German representative was Karen Lochte, a slight, austere woman who was then the director of AWI. “She stood up out of her chair, which was not normal there, and looked at her colleagues, all these international leaders in Arctic science, and said, ‘Let’s do this together. This is a challenge for us as an international community.'”

Those words marked a turning point.

“That was really important because resources on the table need to start from somewhere,” Shupe said. Those few minutes produced years of momentum. Shupe realized that AWI would put major resources on the table, beginning, he said, with “the ship!” 

The Furthest North Any Ship Had Traveled in Winter

Even before the expedition had finished setting up its camps and instruments in November, the ice started cracking. Then, a storm sent huge rifts through the floe and knocked out the power system for several days. Cracks revealing open water repeatedly isolated Met City, sometimes forcing researchers to walk for more than an hour around the fissure to reach the site, a few hundred yards from the ship.

“We just didn’t know that we were going to face this much cracking,” Shupe told me. “It really did take us by surprise, even though we knew the ice was thin, we knew the Arctic was different, it still snuck out ahead of us somehow.”

Snowmobiles dragged the three sleds Shupe built, each piled 11-feet-high with instruments, to different corners of the ice floe. When researchers returned to them, they found an ice ridge had risen beneath one, toppling it upside down, and smashing much of its equipment.

At another site, jaws of ice had opened and then chomped back down, swallowing the entire sled and instruments the size of kitchen appliances. It left only scraps of the equipment behind.

“Our person on site gave me a list of the things he could find,” Shupe said. “This little part, that little part and this little part.” The expedition brought many spare parts and Shupe thought he could repair the damaged sled, at least in principle. But already, the spares were running low. 

The rapidly changing Arctic compounded already extremely challenging conditions, including relentless storms that brought wind chills exceeding 40 degrees below zero. 

A fox chewed through a critical communications line, disconnecting the research outposts from the icebreaker for several days. Curious polar bears poked through instruments during the night. Armed sentries watched for bears whenever researchers were on the ice but wouldn’t shoot them to protect equipment.

The team of researchers who were on the Polarstern during the months-long Arctic night were hobbled in their attempt to return home after their leg of the expedition concluded in February, even before the pandemic began wreaking its havoc.

By then, the Polarstern had drifted within 97 miles of the North Pole, the farthest north any ship had traveled in winter. The Kapitan Dranitsyn, the icebreaker that picked that team up, also broke a record—the farthest north a ship has traveled on its own power in winter—but it was delayed getting to the MOSAiC site by storms and detours around impassable ice. 

When the Kapitan Dranitsyn finally rendezvoused with the Polarstern on Feb. 28, it no longer had enough fuel to make it back to port in Tromsø, Norway. A third icebreaker came to its aid, but the refueling took several days, after which a storm at the edge of the ice delayed the returning ship for several more. 

By then, Norway had closed its borders in response to the pandemic. Expedition leaders negotiated for days so that the 80 MOSAiC team members who had spent almost the entirety of March on the returning icebreaker could come ashore. When they finally docked in Tromsø, they were bused straight to a jet that whisked them to Bremen, Germany, where they finally caught flights home.

Ice and weather dictated the future of the expedition. An unusual weather pattern, which included the opening this spring of the largest ozone hole ever measured above the Arctic, produced winds that pushed MOSAiC’s ice floe across the pole much faster than the expedition’s organizers expected.

“We have this kind of flow regime in the Arctic right now that’s been really static,” Shupe said. “It’s stuck where it is and it’s blowing us across the Arctic faster than anticipated, faster than any of the past 12 years that we used in our analysis to figure out where we would go.”

But the expedition’s icy isolation had also saved it.

Shupe’s Dream Mimicked the Fram’s Arctic Voyage in 1893

Shupe got his first taste of the Arctic more than 20 years ago when he joined an expedition called SHEBA that was the last to spend a year frozen into Arctic sea ice before MOSAiC. As an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound, he had built an instrument that used infrared measurements of the atmosphere to study clouds. His advisor negotiated a spot for him to bring the instrument along, so long as Shupe launched some weather balloons for the professor’s research. 

Since then, Shupe has continued building instruments and setting them up on the Greenland Ice Sheet and aboard Arctic icebreakers to measure cloud and atmospheric processes and how those interact with ice, water and land masses.

Although his weeks on the SHEBA expedition in 1998 spawned Shupe’s dream, MOSAiC would most closely mimic another Arctic expedition from 100 years earlier—the only previous expedition to spend more than a year frozen into ice so far north and one of the defining adventures of the “heroic age” of polar exploration. 

In 1893, the Norwegian explorer and scientist Fridtjof Nansen and a 12-member crew sailed the Fram, a wooden ship designed to survive the crushing forces of the Arctic ice pack, to the frozen sea north of Siberia. Relics from a shipwreck in that region that were discovered on the coast of Greenland—on the opposite side of the Arctic Ocean—had inspired theories of an ocean current moving from east to west across the polar sea. 

No explorer had yet reached either end of the earth and Nansen hypothesized that ice traveling on that current could carry the Fram within striking distance of the North Pole.

By March 14, 1895, the Fram had traveled farther north than any previous expedition, but the ice was diverting it away from its objective. Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen set out with dog sleds, kayaks and skis, allowing themselves 50 days to dash across the nearly 500 miles of ice that remained between the Fram and the pole. They made good time initially, but ice conditions eventually slowed their progress and, realizing they would run out of food if they continued, they turned back some 200 miles from the North Pole. 

Then their race was to get to land before they were marooned unsheltered on the ice through the polar winter. After losing their way on the featureless ice that spread to all horizons, they found the remote Russian islands of Franz Josef Land, sometimes by following the tracks of foxes and polar bears. They were stranded there for nearly a year, sharing a rancid reindeer sleeping bag in a stone and moss hut and surviving on bear and walrus they hunted. 

Fifteen months after they left the Fram, a walrus attacked one of their kayaks, delaying their departure on the next leg of their epic and uncertain voyage back to Norway. While they made repairs, they chanced on another expedition exploring their island. Nansen and Johansen made it home more than three years after they had left. 

The rest of their crew returned just weeks later on the Fram, which, although it had not reached the North Pole, would years later take another Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, to Antarctica for the first successful expedition to the South Pole.

No Need for Social Distancing 

When the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the globe in March, MOSAiC’s icebreaker frozen into Arctic sea ice was safer than a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and more social than any luxury cruise ship then on the water. 

With the vessel effectively quarantined for months even before the virus emerged, it was the one of the last places on the planet where there was no need for social distancing, which would have been virtually impossible in the tight quarters of the icebreaker or among researchers who often must work shoulder-to-shoulder on the ice. 

Hygiene was already stringent, as it always is on polar expeditions due to the potential for common illnesses to spread easily in crowded, confined spaces. Masks and gloves remained essential cold weather protection for the teams working outside, but were unnecessary to combat the spread of the coronavirus on board the Polarstern.

“I think I’m probably more isolated here, to tell you the truth,” Shupe told me over Skype from his home in Rollinsville, Colorado, noting that while those currently on the ice weren’t having to combat the virus, discontent could spread just as easily among the scientists and crew worried about the impact of the pandemic on their friends and family back home. They were working hard to maintain morale, he told me. 

The MOSAiC team held a St. Patrick’s Day party when even Ireland was closing bars and canceling parades. They welcomed the return of the sun after months of polar night with a barbecue and celebrated Easter with a bonfire.

“My friend Steven and I organized a Toga Party,” reported Gina Jozef, a University of Colorado Ph.D. student who is keeping a blog while flying drones to collect atmospheric data for the expedition. “The best part was to see what people came up with as a headband,” she noted of her effort to keep the team’s spirits up.

In her own headdress, Josef wore the ice picks team members carry to pull themselves back onto the ice should they fall into the ocean. 

Everyone on the Polarstern has had access to a satellite phone and WhatsApp to stay in touch with their families during the pandemic. Just as uplifting for morale, the ice supporting the expedition was less difficult in April, allowing the stranded scientists to distract themselves with their work.

“The last week has been great for science; a lot of good progress,” Shupe told me in April. “I’ve looked a little bit at some of the data already, and it’s awesome. I cannot wait until there’s time to do the science. But if you don’t do all these things to take care of the people and the logistics, then there is no data to do science with.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to set up an evacuation, where we could take a limited number of people home as soon as possible,” he told me. “If we can get those people home, then everybody that’s left on site will feel much better, because they know that their colleagues are taken care of.”

Shupe was now trying to move in the opposite direction of the stranded scientists, hoping to get back to his dream expedition as quickly as possible. But with closed borders, restricted air travel and no ice breaker scheduled to visit the expedition until June, he had no idea when or how that would happen. Nor did the expedition’s leadership know how, precisely, they would extract those who most urgently needed off the ship. MOSAiC’s ultimate success still hung in the balance.

Arctic Amplification

The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the planet as a whole—in some regions, four times faster. In the first decade of this millennium the global temperature was about 0.6 degrees Celsius warmer than its average from 1951 to 1980, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory, but in the Arctic temperatures were 2 degrees warmer.

“Arctic amplification,” as it is known among climatologists, is largely driven by the loss of the sea ice itself. White ice reflects the sun’s heat back to space, a process measured as albedo. But, as warming Arctic temperatures melt the ice, the darker ocean it reveals absorbs more heat, which melts even more ice in a vicious circle of warming. 

Melt ponds that form atop the pack ice turn floes as solid as rock into something like giant hunks of swiss cheese that can quickly break up. Channels of ocean water pump heat and moisture into the atmosphere, with profound but poorly understood impacts on weather and climate. 

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Shupe said. “The ice albedo feedback is a big player in that game but there are so many others and we’re trying to put those pieces together to understand that.”

Some researchers see a tie between the melting ice in the Arctic and the increasing number of polar vortexes in temperate latitudes, such as the one that just brought frigid temperatures and snow to the northeastern United States in mid-May.

Taneil Uttal, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA in Boulder, met Shupe when she was a researcher on the SHEBA Expedition 22 years ago.

“At the beginning of his career, I hired him to work out on the ice on my projects, and now at the end of my career, I went out to staff his projects,” said Uttal, who was among the team that overwintered with MOSAiC.

“Everybody understands the mechanisms by which the lower latitudes are affecting the Arctic, but how much that feeds back is still a question of debate,” Uttal told me, a few days after she returned from the Arctic. “Chinese researchers, European researchers, Russian researchers, they consider that to be something that is for certain now and they are looking more at the mechanisms of why that is.”

The less steep difference between temperatures in the far north and those of lower latitudes has weakened the flow of the jet stream, some researchers theorize, allowing it to meander and pool, much like a fast falling mountain stream does when it arrives at flatter meadows, thus allowing Arctic air to reach more temperate latitudes and stall there.

“Intuitively for me, it’s hard to believe that what’s going on in the Arctic is not affecting mid-latitude weather when you see those polar outbreaks,” Uttal said.  “There’s something going on there. There’s some kind of a connection there.”

Current climate models haven’t resolved these complexities. And even with the rapid warming of the high north, the polar ice pack in winter and spring still walls researchers off from the region. Now that the MOSAiC scientists have finally made it there, it seems determined to push them back out.  

My Debt to Suffering 

I had turned down the opportunity to spend three months voyaging to the MOSAiC expedition months before any of the current challenges. I couldn’t afford, at least in my mind, the time away from other work, my family and spring in the Rocky Mountains. 

With the coronavirus keeping us all home, I revisited Farthest North, Nansen’s book about his expedition on the Fram more than 125 years ago.

The years on that vessel, the months stranded in a tiny stone hut with just one other human, made me feel soft and precious for my demurring from a three-month tour of the polar sea in a well-equipped ship, or for complaining about requests that I shelter from the pandemic in the comfort of my house. It also made me look at the flow of studies and statistics about the Arctic climate that cross my desk in a new light—the result of profoundly complex and expensive logistics and untold suffering by adventuring scientists. I had been stormbound in tents while working near the poles, but those experiences were not even a taste of what Nansen and Johansen endured; or of the complex puzzle the leaders of the MOSAiC had to solve to save their expedition.   

A Raging Pandemic, and Thinner, Faster Ice

After the Polarstern’s record drift north in April, the expedition went south fast, both literally and figuratively. By early April, the vessel had drifted below the latitude it expected to reach in August. The rapid movement could carry the expedition to open water months earlier than planned, requiring it to pack up and relocate back toward the pole, lest its year-long examination of the ice be lost. 

And as MOSAiC approaches the edge of the ice, its site will become increasingly perilous as ocean swells flex the floe, bringing more cracks and speeding its breakup.

The situation was already precarious.

MOSAiC’s leadership had delayed its spring research flights when the flight crew was quarantined in Germany after one of its members tested positive for the coronavirus. The flights were canceled altogether when Svalbard, the islands north of Norway where the flights were to originate, asked all non-residents to leave to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

The canceled flights presented more pressing complications, because the team scheduled to join the expedition in early April, and the one scheduled to go home, planned to travel on planes that would land on a 3,600-foot runway carved atop the ice by the MOSAiC team. 

Their flights were foiled first by ice left too thin and weak by the warming climate to support the landing strip, which cracked and buckled. Then the closure of the airfields in Svalbard cut off access to the Polarstern by the planes that would carry the arriving and departing staff. 

Expedition organizers attempted to charter an icebreaker to relieve the stranded scientists, but travel restrictions shut those down.

“Behind the scenes people (are) working really hard to come up with solutions, and the solutions just keep slipping away,” Shupe said.

In the meantime, expedition leaders imposed a deadline. If they failed to find a workable plan to rescue the marooned researchers by April 20, it would trigger a dismantling of everything they’d built on the ice and the Polarstern would abandon the site and head home. MOSAiC would end halfway through its planned year on the ice.

The team at AWI in Germany, negotiating for the rescue of the scientists, pursued so many options and possibilities, they filled a four-page spreadsheet. At the end of each row, a stop sign marked each dead end.

“‘Nobody cares about us in the field,'” Shupe recalled some of the increasingly desperate scientists on the expedition saying. 

Shupe spoke and texted often with his colleagues on the Polarstern to reassure them that they would soon be reunited with their families, but each aborted rescue plan ratcheted up the pressure he felt in his own home. He stared out his window at the wooded slopes, where an excursion could provide some relief, but instead spent long days and nights in front of his computer screen.

“It’s been extremely stressful,” he said of the challenges to his dream expedition. “It’s taken a pretty big toll on me. My insides are just all jumbled…I’ve got a pretty strong vision about what it’s supposed to be, and a lot of that I’ve got to give up.”

Finally, on April 22, two Twin Otters—small, nimble airplanes that excel in difficult Arctic and alpine conditions—took off from Station Nord, a Danish military and scientific base in northeastern Greenland.  They swooped from the sky onto the remains of the crumbling airstrip carved into the ice by the Polarstern,  picked up the seven expedition members who most urgently needed to leave the ice, and were back in the air in an hour. The planes refueled in Greenland and then continued to Canada. Those researchers made it home, without jeopardizing the larger mission, but MOSAiC was still on very thin ice. 

In Search of Ice to Last Through the Summer

After the aerial rescue, Shupe and the members of the next leg of the expedition flew to Germany, where they were quarantined for the first two weeks of May. For the first six days, they had no contact with other humans and used texts, emails or WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues in rooms just steps away.

Each member of the team will be tested twice for Covid-19 before boarding one of two German research vessels that will cruise from Bremerhaven through ice-free water to Svalbard. 

While Shupe and the incoming team are quarantined, the 90 people currently on the Polarstern will pack up most of the central observatory, leaving in place some instruments that can run autonomously, along with most of the distributed network that sprawls for miles around the ship. The Polarstern will break away from its icy berth later in the month and head south, out of the ice, to Svalbard, which is far closer than was expected due to the Polarstern’s unexpectedly fast drift across the Arctic. 

The ships plan to rendezvous in a fjord there, where they can exchange crews and supplies while sheltered from the weather and waves, but without anyone setting foot on land.

Then the Polarstern will speed back to the ice camp in hopes that they won’t miss one of the most critical seasons the scientist hoped to study—the beginning of the annual melt.

“We definitely want to race,” Shupe said.

While the Arctic ocean tends to freeze around the same time every fall, it can melt at widely differing times and rates in the spring, a process that affects everything from where fish stocks will congregate to weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Understanding that transition into melt is such an important time and we might miss it by being gone,” Shupe said.

But the melt is coming on fast. Research from one of Shupe’s colleagues at the University of Colorado identified a pulse of unusually warm air heading toward the North Pole this week. Such warm fronts that have increased in frequency in recent years as the Arctic has warmed.

Shupe arranged to have a series of fuel tanks feed a generator to keep a tall tower of his atmospheric instruments in Met City measuring the energy transferred from the melting ice to the atmosphere.

“I’m putting a lot of eggs in this basket of keeping our tower running on generator power, even though it’s a big risk,” Shupe said.

But soon after they had set up the generator and fuel tanks, the ice began cracking. Researchers dismantled the tower and had just brought the instruments back on board the Polarstern when the Met City site broke apart. 

All the research that requires scientists to be on the ice will halt during the roughly three weeks the Polarstern is away from the ice camp.

“We’re kind of missing out on some of the key details,” Shupe said.

The team for the coming leg of the expedition plans a sprint to rebuild the central observatory, but could find that the shifting ice has left little of the previous infrastructure intact, or that the floe is too thin and fragile to support their work. Eventually they’re likely to have to relocate farther north to re-establish the expedition on ice substantial enough to last through the summer.

“I believe that will happen during this leg,” Shupe said.

Maybe the ice would slow down or even reverse direction, as it had early in the expedition, he thought. Colder weather might freeze some of the leads of open water that had fractured MOSAiC’s floe. Maybe the ice would stabilize. But, increasingly, Shupe was having to come to terms with the fact that the ice floe he had hoped would be the expedition’s home for a full year was unlikely to survive the summer. 

“I went into it ready to be surprised, and it still got out ahead of me,” he told me. “How fragile the ice has been. I knew it was gonna be thin, but it’s still thinner and more fragile than I thought it would be.”

That means that the expedition that only planned to build and dismantle its ice camp once could be doing so three times.

Shupe will once again find himself working at the highest level and on the ground. He’s been named cruise leader for the coming leg of the expedition, a position that was originally reserved for AWI personnel, and will be on the Polarstern beside expedition leader Markus Rex.

But he’s bringing as much hardware and electronics as he can carry to help other researchers repair equipment, along with an instrument he had brought back from the expedition to fix after a polar bear gnawed a cable loose during his first tour on the ice.

“I do want to get my hands very dirty—that’s a part that I really appreciate,” he told me from his quarantine in Germany. “To me, the best way to lead is by action. We’re asking people to work really hard here…I want to work just as hard as they are.”

As he and his counterparts in Germany struggle to hold the expedition together, he recognizes that many of the forces threatening it are also what he came to study; and what makes the expedition’s research so critical.

“It’s this fantastic new sea ice environment that we don’t understand that well,” Shupe said.  “It’s the new Arctic. And we’re there to witness it!”

Michael Kodas is a senior editor at InsideClimate News and author of Megafire: The race to extinguish a deadly epidemic of flame.

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