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The biggest Arctic expedition in history is launching for the North Pole

Hoarfrost covers the snow where researchers cross a lagoon in Utqiagvik, Alaska, on April 9. The researchers are among a group gathered to prepare for the upcoming year-long MOSAiC expedition that will collect data on Arctic climate and ecosystems. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of scientists are about to strand themselves in sea ice in the North Pole — an ambitious effort to understand the consequences of a changing climate in the fastest-warming part of the globe.

The effort begins Friday, when the German icebreaker RV Polarstern sets sail from the Norwegian port of Tromso with scores of researchers and hundreds of tons of scientific equipment onboard. As winter darkness descends on the Arctic, the adventurers will allow the sea to freeze around their vessel, trapping them. The Polarstern will spend the next 12 months drifting slowly across the pole, as scientists collect crucial observations on the water, the ice, the air and the living inhabitants, until summer melting finally sets the ship free.

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) is the largest Arctic research project in history and one of humanity’s greatest efforts to understand how melting at the pole will affect the rest of the planet.

Adrift in the Arctic: Nowhere on Earth is warming as fast. Scientists will spend a year trapped in sea ice to understand what that means for the world.

A decade in the making, the project costs at least $134 million. Its members come from 60 institutions in 17 countries, led by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute.

Soon after departure, the project’s coordinators will face a crucial decision: To which floe should they link their fates? If it drifts too far in any direction, the Polarstern could end up beyond the reach of emergency rescuers, or in waters where Russia prohibits the collection of scientific data.

Drawing on historical records, oceanographers have developed sophisticated models aimed at understanding where a given piece of ice will travel over the course of the year. But the Arctic’s past is not always a good predictor of its future; the Arctic sea ice extent in the summer fell to near record lows.

Once locked into their chosen floe, the scientists will build a gigantic, floating research station around the ship. Each research division will have its own “city” on the ice, connected by wooden walkways designed to ensure that no meteorologist accidentally stumbles through a biology experiment and alters the results. Via snowmobile and helicopter, scientists will be able to venture farther afield — but always under the watchful eye of an armed guard trained to ward off polar bears.

Most of the researchers will live and work aboard the Polarstern for two months at a time, then switch with the next team, like participants in a gigantic intellectual relay race. Virtually their only link to the rest of the world will be the ships and aircraft scheduled to arrive at the end of each leg — winter blizzards and stormy seas permitting — to swap out passengers and restock food and fuel.

“There’s a Christmas Eve sense for all of us right now,” said Dartmouth geophysicist Don Perovich, co-lead for the project’s sea ice investigations. “It’s just incredible to think about what we’re going to get to see in the next year.”

Expedition head Markus Rex calls the Arctic “the epicenter of global warming.” Nowhere on Earth is changing as fast as there, where temperatures are an estimated 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they were 150 years ago.

But the deep cold and impenetrable dark of the central Arctic make it almost impossible to study during the winter; planes can’t fly safely, and even the strongest icebreakers can’t traverse the frozen seas. Drifting with the ice, as the Polarstern is doing, is the only way to access this remote part of the planet in its harshest season. But a successful transpolar drift has been achieved just twice before, and never by a modern research vessel.

Now, for the first time, scientists will be able to watch as open water freezes white and still, as the sun dips behind the horizon and stays there, as life goes quiet while the auroras dance. They’ll be there to bear witness when the light returns, when the days lengthen, and plants and animals start to flourish in increasingly open waters. They’ll be able to track the Arctic’s transformation across the seasons and make sense of small-scale processes that can have dramatic large-scale consequences.

“It’s like spending years reading a random chapter from a book and trying to figure out what’s going on,” Perovich said. “In this case, we’ll be there from page one to the last page.”

But MOSAiC is “not just an intellectual exercise,” Perovich added. Research suggests that rising temperatures and declining sea ice in the Arctic are having dangerous ripple effects across the globe.

For centuries, the persistent cold at the top of the world has been like a keystone in an arch — it stabilized the entire Earth system. Its absence, said Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Woods Hole Research Center, could cause long-established weather patterns around the planet to topple like dominoes.

“We should all be worrying,” Francis said.

Sea ice reflects the majority of sunlight that hits it back into space; without this reflective power, climate change is expected to accelerate. Already, it’s thought that global warming is 25 to 40 percent worse than it would be if the Arctic ice hadn’t melted so much.

An increasingly open Arctic ocean also contributes to wild fluctuations in the jet stream, the atmospheric river that pushes weather across the Northern Hemisphere. Francis’s research suggests that recent extreme weather events — the polar vortex that gripped the Midwest in the winter, the lasting drought in California, heat waves in Europe and Asia — are the product of these waves.

Although she will not travel aboard the Polarstern, Francis was involved in developing the science plans for MOSAiC. Her research and the work of many others depend on the information the expedition collects, she said. The exchange of heat between water and air, the interactions between ice and clouds, even the exhalation of gases by microscopic Arctic algae all factor into phenomena that could reshape our world.

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