Teaming up for environmental research: Germany leads MOSAiC, the largest multilateral Arctic expedition in history

The first group of researchers on the new ice floe

The first group of researchers on the new ice floe, © Esther Horvath, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

08.10.2019 - Article

Under the leadership of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung, 300 scientists from 17 countries will set sail on a gigantic ice floe to study, for the very first time, the Arctic’s entire climate system.

In the middle of the Arctic Ocean, between Russia, the United States, Canada, Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, renowned scientists will allow their icebreaker Polarstern to become trapped in the ice, drifting for one year. Before they could pull up alongside the ideal ice floe, an intensive search of the central Arctic was conducted – involving the evaluation of satellite imagery and helicopter overflights, with the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov providing additional support. The ice floe that was identified for the expedition currently drifts up to 10 km per day in different directions. The researchers have already begun building an ice camp as fast as they can. It is a race against time, because even now the sun does not properly rise. There are only a few days left that provide a little twilight around noon.

Basic research for climate action

From the bridge of the Polarstern, a safety engineer keeps a watchful eye on the researchers
From the bridge of the Polarstern, a safety engineer keeps a watchful eye on the researchers© Esther Hovrath, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

You need only look at a map to see that this expedition runs on multilateral cooperation. More than 19 nations, including the United States, China and Russia, are participating in MOSAiC. It is scheduled to last for one year and has a budget of 140 million euros. The team wants to gain a better understanding of the Arctic climate, so that global climate models can be improved and more reliable climate predictions made. For this purpose, the researchers are collecting five types of data: atmospheric, sea ice, oceanic, ecosystem and biogeochemistry. The aim is to learn more about the reciprocal effects that determine the Arctic climate and life in the Arctic Ocean.

The Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung is leading the expedition

The Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung (AWI) is supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research; it conducts scientific research in the polar regions and the northernmost oceans. As one of 19 research cells of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, it coordinates Germany’s polar research efforts and makes available vessels, such as the Polarstern research icebreaker, as well as monitoring stations to international researchers. Markus Rex  of AWI is head of the MOSAiC expedition. For him, this is a very special endeavour, because

MOSAiC is for the first time ever bringing a modern research vessel with one‑of‑a‑kind, cutting-edge scientific equipment to the central Arctic during the winter season. It is the largest research expedition to the central Arctic in history. We are cooperating with more than 60 institutions from 19 countries. The number of people alone that are accompanying this expedition is record-breaking. Another first is how we are using five icebreakers in a carefully coordinated manner, so that we can always at the right time resupply the expedition with new fuel, food and exchange personnel.

Germany is taking on more responsibility for the Arctic

Markus Rex  also accompanied Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during his trip last August to the Arctic, specifically to Nunavut Territory in northern Canada. During his visit, Minister Maas got a first-hand impression of the drastic effects of climate change and also spoke with politicians and representatives of civil society about possible solutions. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising around twice as rapidly as elsewhere in the world. In Northern Canada, temperatures have already increased by 2.3 °C compared to pre‑industrial levels.

Not only through the MOSAiC expedition, but also in the sphere of foreign policy, Germany is taking on more responsibility for the Arctic. This is because, due to its conditions and location, the Arctic is an early warning system for global warming and the consequences of climate change. At the end of August, the German Government, under the auspices of the Federal Foreign Office, adopted new interministerial Arctic policy guidelines in the Cabinet. The guidelines offer clear orientation for future research activities with German involvement and for economic activities by German companies in the Arctic.

The aims of German Arctic policy at a glance:

  • Germany wants to work towards worldwide climate and environmental protection in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • The German Government is calling for the deployment of environmentally-friendly technology as well as the application of the highest environmental standards and the designation of protected areas to preserve biodiversity in the Arctic.
  • The interests of the indigenous population as well as the safeguarding of their rights to freedom, good health and self-determination in their habitat should be strengthened.
  • Germany is committed to free and responsible research in order to learn more about the Arctic.
  • For the future of the Arctic, close and rules-based cooperation with other countries within a strengthened international legal framework is necessary. Germany is therefore working in the Arctic Council as well as within the EU and NATO to protect the Arctic as a largely conflict-free Region.


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