The last few months have been some of the busiest and most exciting of my life. In 2019, I began a PhD program, moved to a new city, started my son in kindergarten, gave my first international presentation, and traveled to four states, four countries, and two new continents. And next year I will be a part of something I never imagined I would be able to do as an electrical engineer. I will travel to the North Arctic, live onboard a research vessel for two months, and participate in the largest Arctic expedition in history.
The Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) is the first year-long Central Arctic expedition and the largest study of its kind. Beginning September, 2019, the German icebreaker Polarstern made way from Tromsø, Norway towards the northern coast of Siberia. It found a section of sea ice large enough to support it and, for the next year, will drift with the ice floe across the Central Arctic, getting within 200 km (~120 mi) of the North Pole. The year is divided into six two-month legs with research vessels from Russia, Sweden, and China assisting in the transfer of personnel and supplies between each leg.
Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, 600 researchers from all over the world and from an array of disciplines will come together to study sea ice, ocean, atmosphere, and ecology and acquire data throughout the year as the ice, sea, and atmosphere interact and change in response to the Arctic climate dynamics. This data will then be made publicly available to be used by generations of researchers in the development of ever-more accurate and robust climate change models.
Our group at The Ohio State University built an ultra wideband microwave radiometer (UWBRAD) that will receive emissions in the 0.5 – 2 GHz range and use a radiative transfer model to estimate ice thickness and salinity. These observations will be conducted for the entire length of MOSAiC, giving an overall picture of how the ice changes over the course of an Arctic year. The instrument was designed and constructed by my advisor, Dr. Joel Johnson, and colleagues, Oguz Demir and Mark Andrews at OSU. Oguz and I will each be on a separate leg of MOSAiC, operating the instrument. To be a part of this expedition as a PhD student is the chance of a lifetime.
There will be 40-50 researchers onboard the Polarstern for each leg. They range from atmospheric and marine scientists to electrical engineers. Each group is conducting their own research studies to collect data about the Arctic which will be made publicly available once the expedition is complete. In addition to operating our UWBRAD and other remote sensing instruments during my leg, I will be assisting some of these other research groups to collect data while in the Arctic.
One such group I will assist is the sea ice group. To prepare for my sea ice duties on MOSAiC, in April of 2019, I flew to the northernmost settlement in Alaska, Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), to attend a week of sea ice training.
In Utqiaġvik, we learned how to take field measurements in 0°F (-18°C) temperatures and 20-25 mph (32-40 kph) winds. The conditions will be much worse near the North Pole, of course, but it was a great primer for what to expect when working out on the ice for 2-3 hours at a time. The biggest lesson I learned: you need the right cold weather gear. If you are warm inside your gear, you can get the work done you need to do and even enjoy it.
A few of the highlights from this trip were snowmobiling on the frozen Arctic Ocean, learning to take ice cores for later analysis of the different ice layers, operating a LIDAR scanner to measure changes in snow thickness, and taking snow profiles using the SnowMicroPen.
In the mornings and evenings during my week in Utqiaġvik, I left our warm berthing to stand at the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean and watch the sun come and go for as long as I could take the cold. It is difficult to explain what it feels like to see the edge of the world, and to see what lies beyond it. Where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas meet on the north coast of Alaska, the wind builds unobstructed for a thousand miles. There are no trees or large buildings, just frozen land, sea, and ice. Nietzsche said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” I could feel the unknown reaching out to me in its slow, heavy way. The longer I stood there, the closer I became to something much bigger and older than me. But inevitably my eyelashes would freeze and my fingertips became numb, so I was forced to turn back towards the road.
I have always wanted to know what the Earth felt like before man. To live without buildings or roads or hospitals or neighbors or systems that push us forward through life. To live without a safety net. This is it. It is bitterly stunning and cold at the threshold where the last town ends. I have a primitive gratitude for the systems that carry us. We have created structure in our society. We have schools, interstates, climate-controlled offices. We have saved ourselves from chaos and extremes. We could have left progress at the hunter-gatherer stage, but it is not in us to be stagnant. It is in man’s DNA to work towards a goal. We need to build, to light our world, to advance, and to pass on our knowledge to the next generations. The spirit of science is to learn more about our world and the spirit of engineering is to apply that knowledge. But it is our responsibility as humans, capable of understanding the consequences of our actions, to ensure our efforts are applied for the good of the world. We are responsible for the outcome.
Projects like MOSAiC give me hope in our future. It is an international community, funded by multiple international government agencies and nonprofits, working together to learn more about the world, to provide that knowledge free to the world, and to apply it for the good of the world, while taking full advantage of man’s natural need to create structure from chaos. This is mankind at her best.
People are not good or bad, but have the potential to create both. MOSAiC puts us to work, uses our skills and knowledge to create change. If you visit the MOSAiC website, you can find a lot of information about the project, as well as some great videos about the expedition, the science, and the Arctic. In one of them (shown below), the expedition leader, Dr. Markus Rex, beautifully summarizes the purpose of MOSAiC:
“Our overarching scientific goal is to improve the climate models such that they can be used as a solid scientific basis for political decisions we are facing right now so that we can shape our future rather than tumble into it.”
Our greatest desire as societies is to shape our future into what we most believe to be good and true. Unfortunately, we don’t have an overall consensus of what is good and true. Fortunately, research like this helps us gather the data and facts about the world that we need to one day, hopefully in my own or my son’s generation, reach this consensus.