On board is a team of climate scientists studying the winter Arctic as part of the most extensive expedition that there has ever been to this remote part of the world. The expedition party has to work through the constant darkness of polar night and in temperatures as low as -45C.
So, what is Christmas at the North Pole really like?
(Image credit: Esther Horvath/AWI)
The expedition's remote-operated vehicle reveals a thick layer of ice around the ship's hull (Credit: AWI)
Despite these extreme conditions, scores of scientists have chosen to be on this ship – the German icebreaker Polarstern – through part of the Arctic winter. As of mid-December, they are a mere 270 kilometres from the North Pole.
The expedition, which set off in September 2019, is the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, known as Mosaic. I returned to land in late October, but a relay of scientists will keep the ship occupied throughout the year. They are hoping to improve understanding of climate change, by taking a closer look at the heart of global warming: the Arctic.
After freezing into an ice floe, the ship’s hull is now encased in a thick layer of ice (pictured). As the ice drifts from the east to the western side of the Arctic Ocean, carried by ocean currents, the frozen ship will drift with it.
(Image credit: AWI)
Working on the ice in blizzard conditions is very risky, as visibility can be extremely poor (Credit: Thea Schneider)
Working on the Arctic sea ice is challenging at the best of times. In mid-winter, the environment is extraordinarily unforgiving.
Temperatures below -30C require all skin to be covered to avoid frostbite. Wind can decrease the temperatures even further. A 10 meters per second wind decreases the felt temperature by almost 10 degrees due to “wind chill”.
Wind can also whirl up the snow on the ice, leading to very low visibility, like sudden fog or heavy snowfall. These “white outs” make moving around very dangerous, since all orientation points can suddenly disappear – even the lights from the ship might not be visible anymore.
When this happens, work on the ice has to cease immediately.
(Image credit: Thea Schneider)
Polar bears are incredibly charismatic animals, but they are also deadly predators (Credit: Thea Schneider)
The other main danger on the ice – besides the cold and the cracks – are polar bears.
As cute as they seem, polar bears are apex predators. The curious mammals can smell Polarstern and like to inspect the unfamiliar objects that they encounter nearby, like scientific instruments – often to the chagrin of the researchers.
(Image credit: Thea Schneider)
Amusing oneself with old-fashioned games is one way to pass the time without the internet (Credit: Thea Schneider)
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the Arctic winter is not outside at all, but keeping the expedition happy throughout the difficult conditions.
Working long hours every day of the expedition with little time to relax can be tough. Being cramped together in a ship for three months of darkness can cause a severe case of cabin fever. With limited internet and connectivity with the outside world, one effective cure is an old-fashioned deck of cards.
As well as the festive season, December holds another landmark for the scientists on board. It will be their first contact with other people in months.