Perpetual night shift for scientists on Germany’s Arctic mission

The Polarstern research vessel is spending an entire year drifting through the Arctic. Physicist Christian Katlein reports back on exhilarating and dramatic work during the long polar night.

Bremerhaven, Germany (dpa) – It’s pitch dark whenever Christian Katlein and his colleagues emerge outside, whether at noon or midnight.

“We are able to gain an impression of our surroundings only with the aid of searchlights, infrared cameras, night vision equipment and laser scanners,” the scientist writes in an email.

And it’s freezing cold, with temperatures over recent days plunging to minus 35 degrees Celsius.

The 33-year-old physicist from Bremerhaven’s Alfred Wegener Institute has been studying the sea ice for the past two months aboard the Polarstern. The German research vessel is drifting through the central Arctic moored to a huge ice floe.

The Polarstern is at the centre of the MOSAIC mission, billed as the largest Arctic expedition of all time. With over 300 scientists participating from 20 countries, its goal is to gather fundamental knowledge to better understand climate change.

A camp with numerous scientific instruments has been set up on the floe. It will be dark round the clock for 150 days of the mammoth expedition, which started in September last year.

Katlein is currently living through this long polar night, and is even finding it bearable. The perpetual darkness means “that your body is never reminded that there is such a thing as sun at all,” he says.

Katlein, along with other scientists, will soon be transported by a Russian supply icebreaker to the coast of Norway. The Kapitan Dranitsyn is expected to arrive at the floe in mid-February.

The physicist and his colleagues will be replaced by another team who will continue their work. This is the second change of shift.

Katlein controls a remote-controlled underwater robot. “We measure the underside of the sea ice twice a week,” he says.

There was excitement right at the start of his stay in the Arctic. “I discovered that a crack half a metre wide had opened up immediately under the tent where our diving robot was waiting for its next assignment,” he says.

Quick action saw the equipment hauled to safety, as the crack opened up to several metres the very next day. The equipment was then set up at another point on the ice floe. “The experience made a great impression,” Katlein says.

The work is generally carried out during the late evening hours. “Research time on an icebreaker is extremely valuable, and we aim to make the best possible use of this opportunity,” he says.

Now and then he can swim a few lengths in the swimming pool on board or sweat in the sauna. There are also film evenings on Sundays, and meals together with colleagues as a way to relax.

“Working the whole day on the ice at temperatures below minus 30 degrees Celsius means you need to eat a lot in order to provide the body with the fuel needed to keep warm,” the Bremen-based scientist says.

But there is rarely fresh fruit, salad or vegetables on the menu.

Katlein has had little difficulty in adapting to life aboard, accepting the necessary compromises involved in sharing a two-person cabin.

“On the whole the atmosphere on board is extremely good, as we are all happy to be able to do our work under these conditions,” he says.

But he does have one wish: “I would really like to be able to just turn the sun on for a while to see what everything here really looks like.”

That chance is coming. During the penultimate stage from mid-June to mid-August, Katlein will once again be aboard the Polarstern. By then the polar night will be over.

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