17: Data gaps and the MOSAiC Expedition

Whilst scientists work very hard in all field to discover and understand the world around us, there are many notable gaps in the data and information that has been collected, especially in the Arctic. This week we’ll look at a couple of reasons why those data gaps exist, and then look at a brand new exciting project happening right now that is trying to fill some of those research gaps! Enjoy!

An Arctic scientist busy sciencing (Picture: University of Alberta, Canada)

Data Gaps

When you look at much of the research done about the Arctic environment, there are some very noticeable gaps in the information we have. Some of these are locational, with maps of research sites showing a lack of work being done in Russia. This is partly because a lot of Russian research is done by, well, Russians. Much research that is done across the planet is published in English which is seen as the sort of international language of science, allowing research to be shared and understood more easily. However, some countries do still publish a lot in their own language, one of these being Russia, so unless you are a Russian speaker or have a whole lot of time and money to translate every little Russian research project, a lot of data from this region never reaches the international scientific community.

Of course scientists from other countries can go to Russia and publish their work in English, but this depends on them getting enough funding to travel to this often far-away place, and if for whatever reason the Russian government aren’t keen on a bit of international research being done in their borders (e.g if it could somehow be seen as a military threat) they can simply refuse to give the scientists visas, barring them from even entering the country in the first place.

Aside from political and linguistic issues, another reason why there might be gaps in research data is physical issues. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to get to remote parts of the Arctic so even if they are allowed to be there, only a minority of well-funded research projects can actually afford to visit remote sites. This includes many parts of the Russian Arctic as mentioned, but also places like the northern oceans and remote parts of Canada. On top of that the Arctic has notoriously harsh weather conditions during certain periods, i.e the deep dark depths of winter, which can make scientist either less keen or even just physically unable to do certain kinds of research in this season, leaving a seasonal gap in scientific understanding.

There are attempts to try to deal with these knowledge gaps, like more collaborations between Russian and UK scientists to help cope with the political/linguistic issues. One project which aims to deal with the climate/distance issues in northern oceans is a brand new, shiny, well-funded expedition called the MOSAiC expedition. To put it in context, here’s a bit of history first.

Norwegian explorer (amongst many other things) Fridtjolf Nansen on the left (Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London), and a map of his journey with the Fram Expedition (Map: American Scientist)

Fidtjolf Nansen and the Fram expedition

In 1893 Fridtjolf Nansen, a Norwegian explorer set off with a crew in his ship the Fram with the hope of reaching to North Pole. The plan was to sail the boat towards the east from Norway, where they would allow it to get trapped in the surface layer of sea ice, also known as pack ice. This ice would then float in the ocean currents towards the west, carrying the boat near the pole where Nansen could get out and do the final section of the journey by sledge. This distance would be far shorter than they would have to do if they tried to sail to the pole directly, as they wouldn’t be able to break through the sea ice in the way between Norway and the pole.

This kind of travel, based on the theory of polar drift (so the idea that the pack ice floated with ocean currents) was new and controversial, but that didn’t stop the adventurous Nansen. As with many exploration tales, there was bravery, hunger, cold and true grit. In the end Nansen and his crew managed to drift the Fram near to the pole, though it was a more unpredictable drift than he expected, but he had to turn around on the sledge section of the journey due to too great risks. Him and his crew eventually made it back to Norwegian alive and were hailed as heroes, the only casualties on the journey being some sled dogs that had to be shot for food. It’s a tale filled with far more drama and suspense than I give it credit for here, so I recommend looking up the whole story, but the reason I mention Nansen’s journey is because not only did it create excitement and awe in the people of Norway in the 1800s, it also has inspired a brand new scientific expedition which set off in September of 2019. Here’s why:

The RV Polarstern, research vessel for the MOSAiC expedition (Photo: MOSAiC Expedition)

MOSAiC Expedition

The MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) expedition is a research project in which a purpose built ice-breaker research boat, called the Polarstern, will get itself stuck in the pack ice and drift towards and past the North Pole for a year. This boat will be brimming with eager scientists who will be studying not only how the pack ice drifts, but everything from plankton and algae to methane and clouds in the northern oceans, both for the summer but perhaps more crucially in winter too which we know a lot less about. This expedition was partly inspired by Nansen’s journey, and the boat will actually follow the Frams route from Norway east to reach its getting-stuck-in-the-ice location. Also I should mention this is a meticulously planned project with lots of support including planes dropping off extra supplies for the scientists, so no one should have to eat their dogs or battle frostbite…

Details and route of the MOSAiC Expedition (Picture: MOSAiC Expedition)

Who, where, when, why?

Who is involved? Well, they have ladies, gents, young, less young, Koreans, Canadians and many nationalities more. In fact, whilst it is being largely organised by Germans, there will be over 500 people and 19 nationalities involved. It is a well and truly mixed bunch!

Where and when? It set off from Tromsø in September 2019 when the sea ice is at its lowest, and will proceed east to the waters above Siberia where it will get stuck and begin it drift west.

Why? Because it will produce some very important info. The Arctic is going through many changes at the moment, changes which will and already are affecting the climate and lives all over the planet. However if we are missing huge chunks of information about the Arctic, it is hard to accurately predict and understand why and how those changes are happening. This project will hopefully fill in some of those gaps, making it easier for us to make plans that will benefit the physical and living parts of planet earth.

For more info:

MOSAiC Project: https://www.mosaic-expedition.org/

Fridtjolf Nansen (the man did so much I couldn’t find one article that included everything so, despite its occasional dodgy-ness, here is Wikipedia… however there are probably great documentaries or books about him too!): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fridtjof_Nansen

Music: kongano.com

Title picture: Wikimedia Commons

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