There aren’t many unexplored places left on the planet, and most of those that remain are far beneath its surface. No one knows where the world’s deepest cave is, and vast expanses of the ocean floor remain unmapped. But if you want to explore the top of the world, one of the only places to go is, well, the top of the world. Few people have visited the central Arctic Ocean; even fewer have observed it during winter—its most fearsome season, and the world’s darkest.
Before long, though, scientists will have a chance to do just that. Later this decade, a new project—the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or mosaic—will set out to study the Arctic in unprecedented detail, across an entire year.
The icebreaker Polarstern will leave Norway in the fall of 2019, cruising to a point north of the Siberian archipelago Severnaya Zemlya. From there, it will steer its way into the Arctic’s thin autumnal sea ice and—if all goes according to plan—get stuck. The Polarstern will remain trapped in sea ice for the next 12 months, carried along as the wind and ocean currents drive the ice through the central Arctic and, eventually, into the Greenland Sea. 1
This will be an unconventional mode of transport—most ships in the Arctic are desperate to avoid getting stuck in ice—but the Polarstern won’t be the first to try it. In 1893, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen 2 deliberately engulfed his ship, the Fram, in ice, in the hope that it would carry him toward the North Pole. Though he never got there, he did travel farther north than any previous recorded voyage. More recently, in 2015, the Norwegian research vessel Lance spent five months conducting research while deliberately locked in ice. 3
The Polarstern will stay more than twice as long. Using the ship as their base, scientists hope to observe nearly every aspect of the Arctic system: the drifting ice, the turbulent ocean, the blustery atmosphere, and the organisms that make it home.