• Future

Towards Antarctica on Board of the Polarstern

  • Future

Just like Valdivia  just to be in the past, the Polarstern (“pole star”) today is the pride of German marine research. Oper­at­ed by Bremer­haven-based Alfred-Wegen­er-Insti­tute (AWI, she is renowned as one of the most power­ful polar research vessels in the world. Since her launch on 9 Decem­ber 1982, she has scaled more than 1.88 million sea miles (approx. 3.5 million kilo­me­ters) as of 2023, with an aver­age of 305 days a year in oper­a­tion – current­ly off Antarctica’s east coast. As a succes­sor of sorts of ’our’ Valdivia, the Polarstern is at the center of our series Future: Marine Research – and serves as an exam­ple for the ground­break­ing scien­tif­ic work on the inter­ac­tion between oceans and the climate as well as approach­es to marine protection.

FS Polarstern: Flagship of German Marine Research

With 2,176 gross regis­tered tons (GRT), the Valdivia was quite a decent research vessel at the end of the 19th centu­ry. In compar­i­son to the Polarstern, howev­er, she seems almost petite: the flag ship of Alfred Wegen­er Insti­tute and German polar research weighs a massive 12,614 GRT. As an icebreak­er, the Polarstern and her 19,200 hp can break direct­ly through ice as thick as 1.5 meters; even thick­er ice will be broken by ramming.

It holds a crew of 44, but the vessel has space for up to 55 researchers and tech­ni­cal staff as well. Thanks to the nine scien­tif­ic labo­ra­to­ries, research in a vari­ety of disci­plines can be conduct­ed on board. The boat also has two heli­copters for outdoor missions and numer­ous dinghies. A high-perfor­mance board comput­er supports the scien­tif­ic crew in data gath­er­ing and eval­u­a­tion. The boat also provides for the German research bases in Antarc­ti­ca, a job espe­cial­ly impor­tant for Neumay­er III, an all-year base.

Of Float­ing Ice and Icefish – Research Anecdotes

Start­ing in the fall of 2019, the Polarstern depart­ed on one of her most unusu­al jour­neys. The name of this Arctic expe­di­tion was MOSA­iC – Multi­dis­ci­pli­nary drift­ing Obser­va­to­ry for the Study of Arctic Climate. For an entire year, she drift­ed around in the north­ern Polar Sea, engulfed in a piece of float­ing ice. This way, it was possi­ble to spend the winter peri­od there, which would other­wise be prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble in the region. And so scien­tists from 20 differ­ent nations had the chance to observe the course of a full year in the Arctic and thus better under­stand its influ­ence on glob­al climate. MOSA­iC is regard­ed as a mile­stone in climate research, the data it gath­ered a trea­sure for generations.

In Febru­ary 2021, the scien­tif­ic crew of Polarstern made an aston­ish­ing find in the south of Antarc­tic Weddell Sea: a breed­ing colony of icefish, equalling in size the island of Malta. Marine biol­o­gists all over the world were amazed by the shere size of this breed­ing colony and took it as anoth­er argu­ment for estab­lish­ing a marine reserve in the region. Icefish are known for a natur­al antifreeze agent in their blood and for laying and breed­ing eggs in nests, almost like birds.

Track­ing Glob­al Warm­ing – Witness the Expe­di­tion Live

The Polarstern’s latest expe­di­tion took her to the east coast of Arcti­ca. The expidition’s research goal include the histo­ry of the insta­bil­i­ty of local ice sheets and the inter­ac­tion with ocean circu­la­tion. The aim is to better assess the speed with which sea levels could rise in the course of anthro­pogenic glob­al warm­ing and how this will affect the south­ern ocean’s abil­i­ty for ther­mal and CO2 absorp­tion. A second team exam­ines the sedi­men­ta­ry struc­ture of the sea bed. Scien­tists regard it as a climate archive, enabling them to better under­stand peri­ods of warm­ing and their long-term effects.

You can witness this live: With the Polarstern app, you can trace the boat’s route and have current events post­ed to your device first-hand. The app also includes all previ­ous expe­di­tions, dating back to the end of 2021.

The Fascination of Research – Promote and Join!

The value of the research conduct­ed on the Polarstern is not limit­ed to its tangi­ble results. It also illus­trates just how fasci­nat­ing and diverse our plan­et is and how many myster­ies it is still hiding from us. You can get active­ly involved in this fasci­na­tion: through support­ing the char­i­ty ’Vere­in der Freunde und Förder­er des Alfred-Wegen­er-Insti­tuts Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeres­forschung e.V.’ (soci­ety of the friends and support­ers of the Alfred Wegen­er Institute’s Helmholtz center for polar  and marine research). The idea of the soci­ety is to support the Alfred Wegen­er Insti­tute and their acitiv­i­ties both with good­will and with finan­cial means. Their work ranges from polar and marine research to scien­tif­ic network­ing, school projects, and promot­ing junior scien­tists. For a compre­hen­sive overview of their acitvi­ties and options for partic­i­pat­ing, go to the society’s website.

Valdivia and the Sea – a Deep Connection

Depth in perfor­mance, a passion for the sea – this is how we found the name Valdivia. For Valdivia was the name of the German research vessel that depart­ed on a jour­ney of method­i­cal deep sea research in 1898. Zool­o­gist Carl Chun (1852 — 1914) from Hoechst, now a part of Frankfurt/Main, led the expe­di­tion. Equipped with the then most cutting-edge research devices, the Valdivia was able to sound sea depths of 6 kilo­me­ters or more. It also had special nets, devel­opped by Carl Chun himself, which enabled the crew to collect marine wildlife samples in almost any depth and take those to the surface for examination.

(Image source: FS Polarstern on its way to Neumay­er-Station III in Antarc­ti­ca. Copy­right by Folke Mehrten­s/Al­fred-Wegen­er-Insti­tute (CC-BY 4.0)