Last Days on the Floe

May 8 – May 15

Goodbye DroneVille 2.0

DroneVille 2.0, from the lead at the end of the runway.

This week I said goodbye to DroneVille 2.0. The DataHawk flights I did last week truly were my last flights for MOSAiC. This week, I thought I might potentially fly another time or two, but the weather was not favorable for that. At the beginning of the week, the winds were consistently above 10 m/s, which is our maximum wind speed for flying, and were forecasted to be that way until after May 13th. I had originally planned to take down the tent on the 12th at the latest, to give it time to dry on the ship and be packed away by the 14th (the deadline for packing all containers) but try to do as many additional flights as possible until then. However, on the 8th, I already saw that the winds were forecasted to be too high to fly through my self-imposed deadline, with the lowest winds of all days on the 9th, so I made the decision to pull the tent down on that day, taking advantage of the relatively low winds for ease of tent removal.

Last set-up of DataHawk operations, before taking DroneVille 2.0 down.

So on May 9th, DroneVille 2.0 was dissolved. But first, I set everything back up one last time, as if I were going to fly, to take pictures of the set-up to include in my documentation for the next pair of scientists coming in for my team on leg 4. It was somehow nice to set it all up so that I could take down and pack away the tables and chairs and launcher and everything for the last time, giving it a little bit more of a momentous feeling. Maybe that’s a bit silly, but the ceremonial sense of it helped me say goodbye a little bit easier.

Then, the tent came down.

DroneVille 2.0 tent disassembled.

It wasn’t the easiest task, taking down this tent which acts like a giant kite, trying to fly away in the 11 m/s winds, but with the help of one other person, we were able to take it down very efficiently. It all happened a bit too quickly actually, leaving no time to reminisce on all the good times with DroneVille 2.0 as it was coming down. But then it was done, and we packed it away into the bag it came from.

Saying goodbye to DroneVille 2.0.

So that was it. DroneVille 2.0 was gone. I said a brief goodbye, thanking DroneVille 2.0 (and the original DV too) for all the ups and the downs and the growth it provided me in the past months. But of course it was not really this little town that made me grow. Yes, it was the main setting of my growth, but really it came from the endless support of the people around me, and my perseverance to continuously push my boundaries to try things that scared me every day.

No more DroneVille 2.0 in the distance.

As I walked away from DroneVille 2.0 for the last time, I looked back at the place it once stood, seeing nothing but snow now. Though DroneVille 2.0 is gone from the ice, it will always be in my heart and in my memories. I will never forget that place.

After the tent was down, I spent the next few days packing up all of our stuff back into the crates they came from, and returning all of our cargo back into the containers. This meant I had to take apart my favorite plane 115 and say goodbye to it. 115 was the only plane I flew that did not eventually break in some way, and I was happy to have at least one plane that survived a lot of flights, and lives on to potentially be flown again in the next leg.

Helicopter Ride

For quite some time now, I have been trying to get a ride in the helicopter, so I could learn more about the science these flights are used for, and see what the floe looks like from above. I thought seeing the ice from this perspective could help me to better put my own project into the context of the bigger picture of the Arctic. But throughout the expedition, whenever the weather has been favorable to do helicopter flights, it was also favorable to do DataHawk flights, and as long as the helicopter was not flying directly overhead, we could fly at the same time. So usually when the helicopter was flying, I was working, so I was not able to find a chance to join a flight.

But with the fall of DroneVille 2.0 at the end of the week, there was now nothing preventing me from joining a helicopter flight, if they had the space to take me. So I asked if I could be on the next aerial laser scanning flight, whenever that happened. For these flights, they fly back and forth over the floe, and some instrumentation on the helicopter maps what the ice floe below looks like. I thought it would be interesting to see how these floe maps, that we use to plan our every-day activities on the ice, are created.

Sitting in the helicopter.

Though I was approved to come on the next one of these flights, it was not looking very promising for it to happen, as the forecast for our last week on the floe was pretty bleak in terms of favorable weather for helicopter flights. I had pretty much given up hope on my chances to get in the helicopter. But on the afternoon of the 10th, to my extreme delight, a brief weather window had opened up, allowing just enough visibility to do this aerial laser scanning flight. As soon as I heard news that the flight was going ahead, I rushed to the bridge to confirm the timing of it, so I could come to the heli hangar before it was scheduled to take off. I was so excited! When it was time, I picked out a helmet that fit, and hopped into the helicopter.

View of the Polarstern from the helicopter.

The flight itself was incredible. As soon as we took off and headed away from the ship, I completely forgot the ship was even there behind us. It was just us in the helicopter and the endless miles of ice in front. Out here in the vast emptiness, alone. But soon, we turned around, and flew back toward the ship, and I was brought back to reality. We were still here with the Polarstern, a safe haven amongst the desolate landscape.

Seeing the ship and the ice camp from above was really cool. Everything looked so small! The people looked like little ants down there, scurrying around the floe. When I am down there on the ice, the ship seems so big and all the installations on the ice are my whole world, but from above, it is clear to see how tiny it all really is compared to the endless empty space around us. It put it into perspective a bit just how secluded and alone we are out here, which was a bit freaky to recognize, but mostly struck me with awe and wonder for the incredibility of this expedition, and how crazy it has been to be living out here for the past few months. 

Incredible view from the helicopter.

Throughout the flight, the clouds cleared up a bit, allowing for the sun to shine down to the surface, creating a beautiful golden hue on the ice, and lighting up the sky enough to see for a great distance. The ice all around us is so broken up, with small to large cracks everywhere, all the way out to the horizon, showing the MOSAiC floe as just one broken up piece in the larger mosaic of broken ice in all directions.

Flying closer to the surface at the end of the flight.

The whole flight was incredible, but one of the coolest sections was right at the end, flying back to the ship to land. We flew a little bit closer to the surface, getting to see the ridges and leads a little bit closer up, but still from above, which provided a really unique perspective of the landscape, different from how we see these things standing on the surface. Then, we landed back on the ship’s heli deck. I was so ecstatic to have finally had my helicopter flight. This was the last thing I really wanted to do before leaving the floe. After this, I could leave happily. This ended up being the last helicopter flight of the entire leg 3.

Waterball

Classic game of waterball. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

Aside from spending our time on science or packing instrumentation these days, some of us join a few nights per week for a game of waterball in the Polarstern pool! The water is pretty chilly, but after a few minutes of roughhousing, going after the ball, you warm up pretty well.

The game can get pretty intense at times, especially when one person has ahold of the ball and everyone else piles on to try to tear it out of their hands, and it ends up in a stalemate, with the cluster of people just swirling around the pool for five minutes, until somebody eventually overpowers the others and rips the ball free of everyone else’s arms. But the intensity is what makes it so much fun, as it is a good way to let off some steam from some of the stress of everyday life, and also get in a good workout before bed.

Goodbye Met City

Pulling the Met City power cable out of the helicopter. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

A lot of time this week was also spent recovering things from Met City. Though my project does not have any equipment or instrumentation there, I wanted to lend a hand, as a fellow atmosphere team member. The main effort with this was bringing all of the instrumentation back that had been planned to be returned to the ship during the transit period and redeployed once the leg 4 scientists return. Since Met City has been quite difficult to reach for a while, especially by skidoo, which would be necessary to lug a bunch of heavy instrumentation back to the logistics area, the best option was to shuttle things back to the ship using the helicopter.

But luckily, we had that weather window one day, so we were able to carry out this operation. It took six helicopter trips back and forth between Met City and the logistics area, including two sling loads, for everything to be returned from Met City. I was stationed in the logistics area to help unload things from the helicopter there, and ready them to be craned onto the ship. At Met City, the 10-meter tower was also lowered, and the instrumentation removed, which was how it was intended to stay until the leg 4 people came back to raise it again. Once this operation was completed, we thought we were done with just about everything that needed to happen with Met City before the transit. We were wrong.

The lowered 10-meter tower and empty Met City.

Because the helicopter was landing in Met City during the cargo transfer, the downwash kicked up a bunch of snow from the surface and revealed a small crack running right between the Met Hut and the 10-meter tower. This crack, if opened, would tear Met City in half, and threaten the small bit of instrumentation being left there. With the high frequency of ice movement in this specific area, we figured it was likely this crack would open up before leg 4 people would return. The atmosphere team then made a last-minute decision to recover everything remaining from Met City. This meant the 10-meter tower would have to be disassembled and returned to the ship. If possible, the Met Hut would come back as well, though that would be a last priority. All of a sudden, we had a lot more work to do.

Disassembling the 10-meter tower, and removing the base. Photos by Julia Schmale.

So the next day, a few of us went out to Met City to disassemble the tower, and haul that, and any remaining boxes of instrumentation, back to the ship. Taking the tower apart was not so difficult, it simply screws apart into three sections. The real challenge was digging out the base, and screwing it apart into its separate pieces. We hadn’t really been intending to dig out the base entirely, as it was pretty deep into the snow, and a new base could be rebuilt if necessary. But once we got started digging and unscrewing the pieces, we were on a roll and didn’t want to stop until the job was complete. Eventually, we were able to get it all out, so the original pieces could be used wherever they choose to put the tower on the next leg.

Loading things onto skidoos. Photos by Julia Schmale.

As weather conditions on this day were no longer favorable for a helicopter operation to return the last bits of heavy equipment and the tower to the ship, we had to use a skidoo. Luckily, after a bit of scouting, some of the logistics team members were able to find a skidoo route to Met City. It was quite a detour, and the ride took about 10 minutes, but the way was found, and enabled us to return the rest of the things from Met City safely back to the ship.

Skidoo ride back from Met City.

After that day of hard work at Met City, I got a fun skidoo ride back to the ship, being trailed on a Nansen sled. The ride was bumpy but thrilling, the snow spraying up onto me as we rode into the sunset (or sun being low on the horizon, of course there are no full sunsets anymore), on the way back to the ship.

The End of the MOSAiC Floe

Broken up ice on the starboard side of the ship, with the remains of Met City in the background.

It was a really good thing that we took down the 10-meter tower that day because in the evening of the very next day, a pretty wicked storm began to roll in, with peak wind speeds around 25 m/s (50 knots), which is a record for the MOSAiC expedition so far, and the exact tiny crack that had been noticed a few days before, as well as some others running through Met City, split wide open, tearing Met City into three or four pieces. Right where the tower had been was suddenly open water. We on the atmosphere team all felt very grateful that events had played out in such a way that allowed us to notice the crack and react to it just in time to rescue the rest of the things from Met City before it was truly torn apart. It was a bit miraculous how it all played out.

We had not, however, gotten a chance yet to remove the Met Hut at this point, so it remained floating out there on its own, on an ever-disintegrating floe. You can see it near the top left of the above picture if you look really closely.

The broken up MOSAiC floe after the storm.

Met City was not the only thing wrecked by this storm. In fact, pretty much the entire rest of the flow was broken up. Where there had once been consistent, reliable ice for the all of leg 3 (aside from the one small crack through the logistics area a few weeks ago), stretching from the ship to beyond DroneVille 2.0, there were suddenly several cracks, separating all of the remaining cities from the ship and from each other. Only Balloon Town and Ocean city remained on the same piece of ice, Remote Sensing City and ROV City were split up on their own.

Before the storm hit, we had recovered more or less everything from the ice that we intended to take with us when we sail to Svalbard. But after this storm, it was clear that nothing out there was safe anymore. We even watched as the ROV tent was actively swallowed up by a ridge to the point it could not be seen anymore from the bridge.

Then the decision was made: we would recover the rest of the things left on the ice, mainly the now empty tents and huts from the cities, leaving only instrumentation that is never intended to be recovered. The floe is no longer reliable enough to leave these things until the leg 4 crew returns. We had kind of seen this coming for a while, with the floe breaking up little by little, but with this one last catastrophic event, we could no longer risk leaving anything behind and expect it to still be there when the next group returns.

Balloon Town just before recovery, and the large open lead running behind it.

In order to better access the cities that needed to be rescued, the ship spent an afternoon maneuvering around to a different part of the floe, so we did not have to cross so many leads to get to Balloon Town and Ocean City. The next day, we all split up into different task forces to tackle the recovery of the different cities. As part of the atmosphere team, I was helping out with Balloon Town, which meant clearing out and taking down the large tent that once stored Miss Piggy. As you can see, a large crack had opened up quite close to Balloon Town, so it was good we were getting out there to take it down.

Toast to a successful recovery of Balloon Town.

It was another day of hard work, digging a lot of things out of some deep snow, unscrewing a lot of ply wood from the ice, and hauling heavy things around, but in the end we were able to completely take down the tent, and bring everything back to the ship to be craned on board. Meanwhile, other teams were working to rescue the other remaining tents and huts for the other cities. When the task was nearly done, we toasted to our hard work, and the recovery of Balloon Town. Well at least I think that is what we toasted to… it was in German, so I actually have no idea what they said.

My last moments on the MOSAiC ice floe.

As I walked back to the ship that evening, I realized this would probably be my last time on the sea ice during the MOSAiC campaign. The next day, there would only be some final quick operations to bring a few miscellaneous items back on board, but this is not something I would be a part of. Knowing this was probably my last time on the ice, I spent a long time staring out at the floe, letting group after group go before me to be craned back onto the ship in the mummy chair, waiting until I was ready to leave it behind for the last time.

After a little while, when I had had enough time to say goodbye to the ice, to the snow, to the ridges, to the leads, to the sun’s reflection on the varying surfaces, and to the joy it all brought me, I could feel deep down that I was ready to go. So I stepped into the mummy chair, never to return to the floe.

Though it has been a hectic end to leg 3, last minute packing up everything on the floe after the big break up, somehow leaving the floe in this state makes it a bit easier to say goodbye. We are not leaving a thriving environment for science, rather, we are leaving behind a place that has little left to offer, in the grand scheme of MOSAiC projects. It is as if the ice is telling us it is ok for us to leave now. The ice has given us all it could, up to the very end, and now we can go home, feeling satisfied with what we did, rather than regretful to not have more time.

Looking Forward

Flying away from the floe, ready to go home. Photo by Calle Schönning.

Now comes the time to leave this floe behind and sail to Svalbard. It is not certain what day we will actually head out. Perhaps it is tomorrow, perhaps we are delayed another day, but the journey back home is the next chapter in this story. Meanwhile, the group of leg 4 scientists will be on their way, sailing from Bremerhaven. We will meet on May 23 in Isfjord, Svalbard, where we will conduct a handover for 4 or 5 days, in the end swapping ships, and sailing back to Bremerhaven, arriving in the first few days of June. The leg 4 scientists will then return to the floe and pick up where we left off.

It is a bit odd to think about another group of people taking our place, many seeing this place for the first time. I remember my amazement of every little thing in the beginning (though it never really went away) and I am so excited for these others to experience that wonder too. It is time to pass the baton, let some others have their adventure, and go home.

Acknowledgement

As this is my last post before beginning the journey home, I want to give a huge shout out to Jonathan Hamilton for posting these blog entries for me from back home throughout this expedition. This is the last one he will post for me, as he is a part of the leg 4 team taking over my project, about to embark on this MOSAiC journey, and in a few days will himself be boarding one of the ships sailing out to meet us in Svalbard.

Jonathan, I want to say a sincere thank you for all your endless support throughout these past months, especially through the times when it was unclear whether or not MOSAiC would be continuing beyond leg 3, due to the COVID-19 impacts. But now that arrangements have been made for MOSAiC to go on despite the logistical challenges, I could not be more excited for you and the expedition of a lifetime that you are about to have. Though I am sad to go, I’m a little less sad knowing that my departure means the start of your adventure.

That being said, I likely will not be able to post any additional blog entries until I am in Germany at the beginning of June, so I’ll be back to tell the end of the story then. 

Ninth Week on the Polarstern

May 1– May 7

Photo by Christian Rohleder.

DataHawk Flights

The beginning of this week was consumed by DataHawk flights. Since the 4th of May was declared to be the last day where science was the priority, and after that, we would prioritize packing up the floe, I was eager to get in as many flights as possible before that day. So I was out every day with Julia and/or Andi, doing one or two flights as usual. I even flew so many days in a row that I hit the maximum 6 consecutive days of flying, after which there is a day of mandatory crew rest, which is written in our flight operations manual, again. The planes have been behaving more or less well, except that my trusty plane 116 decided it didn’t want to work in autopilot anymore, and is no longer functional. But plane 115 has stepped up to the plate. It had some big shoes to fill, but it has not let me down.

On the May the 4th, the potential last day for science, I pushed myself a little bit further, and was able to complete three flights. Maybe it was because I knew this could be the last day of flying, or because the fourth was with me (do you get my Star Wars pun?), but I felt like I could keep flying forever. This whole time, I have been kind of “faking it till I make it” with my confidence flying these planes, burying my very real anxiety deep down, so that it doesn’t affect my ability to maintain control of the aircraft. But this day, I think I might have finally hit the point where fake confidence became real. What a time for that to happen, just as the leg is coming to a close. After the third flight was done, I was thinking I could go for a fourth, and probably would have, except it was too late in the afternoon, and we needed to head back to the ship for dinner.

As we packed up the launcher and tables back into the tent that afternoon, I felt some sadness, knowing that this might be the last time we would pack up the stuff into the tent, and I had maybe just done my last DataHawk flight of MOSAiC. The last scientific drone flight of leg 3. For weeks, I have been somewhat looking forward to this day, since these planes have caused me quite some anxiety and frustration when I have to deal with their miscellaneous problems. But they have also brought me quite some joy, and I have really had a lot of fun flying them every day, especially when things go well, as they have been more or less for the past two weeks.

As I walked away from DroneVille 2.0 that afternoon, it felt like something momentous, but also nothing at the same time. I realized that this will all be over in the blink of an eye. And maybe that blink had just happened today, or maybe it would be in a few days yet, if I would have a chance to squeeze in a flight here or there during the packing period. But after it is all over, am I going to even feel like anything happened at all? The past few months are all a bit surreal.

In honor of my last DataHawk flights on MOSAiC, here is a photo sequence of the entire flight process of a successful flight, with a dialogue of what is going through my mind each step of the way, starting after the pre-flight initialization.  

Pulling the bungee so Julia can hook it onto the DataHawk.

“Dang, this bungee cord is tight. Lean forward with all your weight so Julia can hook the cord onto the plane. Keep holding it until she has a good grip on the plane. Don’t let your hands slip or that plane will come flying toward you and that would not be pleasant. Ok she has ahold of it? Ok let go of the cord slowly. Now run to the laptop so she doesn’t have to hold it there for too long. Ok, I’m at the ground station laptop and the GPS velocity is low, so I will let Julia know I am clicking ‘Launch Plane.’ Alright the button is green, so I am ready to launch the plane. Take the RC in your hand, let Julia know throttle is down and you’re flipping into manual. Alright Julia, count me down when you’re ready!”

Launching the DataHawk. Photo by Delphin Ruché.

“Julia is counting me down, three, two, one, and she let go of the plane, its jerking forward, off the launcher now, ok throttle up, elevator up, woo, there it goes into the air! Agh that was a bit too much up elevator for that amount of pull from the bungee, it’s going into a stall, ok stay calm and pull the throttle down to let the plane dive again, and then throttle back up slowly, ok it is stable now anddddd put the plane in autopilot. Phew it’s in autopilot now, and flying smoothly! Sigh of relief for a successful launch.”

Julia on the ground station. Photo by Calle Schönning.

“Ok now watch the plane to see how it is behaving while it flies in loiter circles at 50 m altitude. Is it struggling with the wind? A little bit. I’ll just have Julia increase the command airspeed a little bit, but not too much, don’t want to fry the motor if we get into some clouds later. Let’s bring it from 14 to 16 m/s. Ok that looks good now! Did we call heli services and let them know we are in the air? Check! Alright, time to tell Julia to send the plane to the next vector field, the one that will have the plane fly a profile between 30 and 1000 m. Done! The plane comes down to 30 m, good, and now it is starting to climb! Perfect!”

Watching the DataHawk climb. Photo by Delphin Ruché.

“The plane is climbing higher and higher now, flying in smooth circles. But we have drifted on the ice a little bit since launch, and the plane is flying a little farther away than I would like it to be. Julia, will you go to the “flight planning” tab on the ground station and move the profile circle down and to the left on the screen by, say, 50 meters? Ok done? Perfect, that looks much better. We’re nearing 300 m altitude now. Ah, that plane is getting pretty high up, time to lay down so I can watch it better, my neck hurts standing like this.”

Laying down to watch the plane at high altitude. Photo by Calle Schönning.

“Ah, that’s the stuff. Time to sit back and relax and watch the plane do its thing up there. Julia, just let me know the altitude every 100 m, as well as the battery state and if the SD card is writing. Thanks! This is the life. What a beautiful day. It’s nice to get to the chill part of the flight where I don’t really have to do much. Just be here watching the plane in case it does something funky. The plane has reached 1000 m now? It is coming back down? Alright, Julia, will you instruct the plane to hold down, so it stays at 30 m when it gets back down here? Then I will land it from there.”

Bringing the plane in for a landing.

“Alright, Julia, I am going to have you readjust the location of the circle to account for the further ice drift during flight, and so it is in an easy spot for me to take it into manual and land it. Move circle number two in the flight plan down and to the right by 50 meters. Hmmmm, that wasn’t quite enough, will you move the circle again down and to the right by 25 meters? Thank you, that looks perfect now! I will take it the next time it comes around to 5 o’clock and land it! It’s coming around now, closer, closer, anddddd ‘my aircraft!’ Gina you got this, make this a perfect landing, left turn a little bit to bring it closer to us, ok then level it out, give it a little up elevator to glide it in smoothly, oh no its going close to Snow 2, turn it right a little bit so when it glides upon impact, it doesn’t fly into Snow 2, ok this looks perfect just let it touch down gently, anddddd there it goes! Down on the ground again for a perfect landing! Good job Gina! Time to go get the plane and unplug the batteries. Julia, you can quit the ground station!”

Unplugging the batteries from the plane after landing.

“Niceeee, the plane looks to be in perfect shape. Just open up the flap to the main electronics bay, and unplug the batteries, one, two, three! Then turn off the RC too. Do a quick visual inspection of the plane…. everything looks great! What a wonderful flight! Now let’s get some warm batteries and do it all again.”

After all, May 4 was not the last day of flights. This week I ended up doing two more flights on May 6. And I have not packed up the DroneVille tent yet, so it is still out there waiting for me if there is a chance to squeeze in another flight or two next week. I don’t want to accept that any flight is ever really the last flight.

Looking Forward

Ice in the lead near DroneVille 2.0. Photo by Andi Preußer.

In the next week, we really get things rolling with packing up the things on the ice and bringing it all back onto the ship. We will leave some of the larger infrastructure, like the Met Hut, out on the ice so that the next leg of scientists does not have quite as much work re-setting up the ice camp when they return to the floe. The plan is for the next leg of scientists to sail back on the Polarstern to the current floe that we are on, after the exchange in Svalbard. Then, they will either re-set up the things we took down and continue working on this same floe, or they will decide that it is too unstable, pack up the stuff we left on the ice, and sail farther north to re-set up the camp on another floe.

One of the reasons we are taking most things off the ice during this transit period, is that the ice has become so dynamic lately, it cannot be trusted not to open and ridge beneath our instruments, which could get destroyed if nobody is here to monitor them. Particularly active has been the lead between the Polarstern and Met City, as the ice around it has been moving quite drastically every day. Above you can see a spot of open water near DroneVille 2.0, which is part of this lead system. My prediction is that the next leg of scientists gets to this floe, takes one look at it, and decides it is not worth re-setting up things here, and sails north immediately to redeploy the camp somewhere else. But we shall see!

Sign leading the way to DroneVille 2.0.

Even though I may not get another flight in during my time on MOSAiC, I have not yet taken down the Arctic Oven and put away DroneVille 2.0 for good. I am leaving it all out there until the last moment, in case of another flight being possible. Finally, within the last week, a sign has been put up, showing the way to DroneVille 2.0. It is a bit funny it took until a week before DroneVille 2.0 is shut down for a sign to go up.  But at least it will be there to help guide the next leg of my team to the location of our runway. And if they end up relocating to a floe farther north, it may come in handy that the title of our town was written incorrectly, as now they can just add another I to the end of the sign, and be ready to go with DroneVille III.

Eighth Week on the Polarstern

April 24- April 30

The sun shining over the Polarstern in the middle of the night, during another camping trip. Photo by Julia Schmale.

DataHawk Flights

The 24th was the first day of DataHawk flights without John. The first day with me taking full responsibility of the flight operations. I would like to say things went smoothly but unfortunately, that was not the case. On this day, I took two planes out to the field, so we would have a backup if there was a problem with the first one, as DroneVille 2.0 is quite a bit farther from the ship than the last location, so it is not very quick to go back and grab a new plane if need be. Since we were at a new location, we had to re-set-up the ice screws for the launcher at a distance that would allow for a long enough stretch of the bungee. Since the bungee had been so dangerously tight at the last DroneVille, I was legitimately concerned about it causing harm if it slipped out of our hands while pulling it to the plane, and since it had warmed up a bit, I thought we could launch the plane with a little bit less pull on the bungee. But I took it a little too far in the opposite direction, and in the first attempted launch, there was not a pull on the bungee, and the plane went down in front of the launcher. Unfortunately, I must not have cut the throttle fast enough, because the connection from the autopilot to the motor got fried.

This is why we always have a backup plane. But the next attempted flight did not go any better. We found a good balance for the stretch of the bungee, and launched the plane just fine, but once I flipped it into autopilot, it took a pretty steep dive to the ground as it was turning around the circle, and it happened too quickly for me to take manual controls back, and the plane took a very hard crash. So hard in fact that one of the wings ripped right off. This was the first legitimate crash landing of the campaign I would say. I have no idea what went wrong with the plane that would cause it to do this, but that was that. Two catastrophic failures in my two first attempted flights, and I was suddenly left with no more assembled planes. I had been trying to stretch the lives of these two planes for a while, and I guess they had both had the last straw, and it happened to be on the same day. I felt pretty defeated. Of course these things would have probably happened just the same if John were here, but the fact that they happened the first day I was on my own made me feel pretty down. It made me look like I couldn’t do this on my own. But I knew that I could. So I didn’t let the frustration take over me, and instead spent the rest of the day and next morning assembling two new planes so we could try again the next day.

Andi launching the DataHawk.

By the next afternoon I had two new planes ready to fly. And to my delight, it went SO much better. But still not 100% smoothly. The first plane I attempted to fly was having trouble getting a GPS lock, so I had to try the other one. But this other plane, number 116, which soon proved to be a dear friend, worked perfectly throughout the whole process. It was still a somewhat stressful first flight though, as there were a few snafus. First, the plane was blown a little bit out of its programmed circle and managed to hit the programmed flight boundaries. I had never seen this happen before, but the plane started just wavering towards the ground. I was able to take it into manual control and bring it to a safe place while Julia moved the boundaries. Phew, crisis averted. But then came an even bigger snafu: all of a sudden, mid-flight, we realized that Miss Piggy, the tethered balloon, was also in the air. They had not informed us that they would be putting her up, and we didn’t think to look or ask, as Miss Piggy is never something that we needed to be concerned about at the previous DroneVille location. But with the wind direction, she was coming more or less right above where we were flying. There were some moments when it looked as if the plane would hit the line, but I was able to instruct Julia to bring the plane back to a safe place in the autopilot. We adjusted the flight plan for the rest of the flight to avoid Miss Piggy by a bigger distance. So all ended well, and we realized that there are a few more considerations we need to take into account at DroneVille 2.0 that are different than before. Just a nice added challenge to test my abilities to handle this on my own.

This day, Julia and I were able to do two successful flights with 116. Gina was back! I proved to myself and to everyone else that I could in fact do this on my own after all! But of course I am not really alone, as I have Julia and Andi to help me as my ground station pilots, and I have lots of support from my research team back home. Throughout the rest of the week, flights went very well. I have been doing one or two flights per day depending on how many slots Julia and/or Andi are available and depending on the changing weather conditions. Two flights seems to be a good number that is within my mental capacity of how much I can handle in one day, and doesn’t have me pushing my boundaries too much. Of course, this is fewer flights than we were doing when John was still here, but I am happy to be getting any additional data that I can get.

After every flight, back on the ship, I process the data from the raw variables recorded on the SD card to create some quick look plots of the atmospheric conditions I measured, and upload it to the MOSAiC Central Storage, where everyone else has access to the data too. This is the main added time commitment since John is not here to do it, but I have found that I am easily able to finish this every day, as John cleaned up the code and simplified the process for me, so it is a quick few steps that take no longer than an additional hour of the day.

Pretending to be a DataHawk flying over the lead.

I mentioned in my last blog post that my priority for the rest of my time flying DataHawks on MOSAiC would be to do lead sampling flights. And this week, I was able to accomplish this goal! There has been a really nice lead that crosses perpendicular to the DroneVille 2.0 runway, which has been in a very convenient place to fly over. The above picture was taken after my second successful flight over this lead, with me pretending to be a DataHawk flying over the open water. Something about a successful flight puts me in a mood to goof, especially since I was very excited to be making progress towards accomplishing this scientific goal. 

View of the open water on the lead I have been sampling.

For these lead sampling flights, we launch the plane as normal, and fly a profiling circle between 30 and 250 m both upwind and downwind of the lead. We also fly transects back and forth across the lead at incrementally increasing altitudes, between 30 and 250 m. This should give us a sense of how the turbulent fluxes in the boundary layer differ between the atmosphere upwind and downwind of the lead, as well as the turbulent fluxes above the lead at varying altitudes. The one circle for this flight is conveniently located right above DroneVille 2.0, and then other is about 200 m away, across the lead. It is sometimes a bit freaky to have the plane that far away, as if it were needed to be taken over in manual mode, I likely would not be able to control the plane well. But it is a risk we have to take for the data. And it has gone really well!

Me standing next to the lead that I have been sampling, during various conditions.

Throughout the week, I was able to do 5 of these lead sampling flights capturing its rapidly changing conditions. From somewhat closed and iced over, to wide and with some open water, to even wider with a LOT of open water, to closed back up a bit and freezing again with ridging in places. I am very proud to have been able to continuously sample this lead with my trusty plane 116 and I am very excited to see what we might learn from the data.

Precarious landing of the DataHawk. Photo by Julia Schmale.

I have gotten a lot more confident and successful with my landings of the planes this past week as well. Almost every single one was smooth, but of course sometimes we still have a rogue plane that likes to glide a long distance after touching down and land in a precarious place in the ridging along a lead. Gotta keep it interesting, you know? And what is a week of DataHawk flights without at least one dangerous landing? It’s funny only because no matter what, the plane is still totally fine.

In other news, the bungee finally snapped this week. It has been looking rough for a while, and it had finally been stretched one too many times. But this was no problem, we simply took out one of the many backup bungee cords we have and tied it to the ice screw. But of course whenever there is problem with something with the DataHawks, it has to happen at least twice in a row. And the bungee was no exception. So of course the next bungee also snapped immediately. Luckily the point where it broke was right at the end, so we were able to cut that chunk off and tie it again. Since then, it has held up.

Leads Galore

Open water in the lead between the Polarstern and Met City. Photo by Julia Schmale.

As we continue to drift closer to the marginal ice zone, the occurrence of leads continues to increase. There has been one large lead system, the one between the Polarstern and the old DroneVille/Met City, that has continuously opened and closed throughout the week. This is also the same lead that extends down to DroneVille 2.0, and I have been flying over for my lead sampling flights. Though usually the lead has had a thin layer of ice develop on top of it pretty quickly after opening, on one particularly warm day, the ice did not form so quickly, and there was much open water, which was beautiful to observe, and also super exciting to fly over. The data from this flight is hopefully very interesting!

Aerial photo of the lead system between the Polarstern and the old DroneVille/Met City taken on April 29. Photo by Manual Ernst.

Watching this lead open and close, and watching the ice shear and move all around this week has really reaffirmed my decision to move DroneVille to its new location. The above picture is an aerial shot taken with a drone of the lead system running between the Polarstern and Met City on April 29. You can see where old DroneVille used to be. And the Polarstern would be directly across the lead below that. So clearly the path to old DroneVille would be a bit complicated, and I am really glad to not have to deal with that, but instead have a reliable area that I know I can get to every day to productively conduct my science.

Image from the deck of the ship of the crack running through the logistics area. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

But the lead between the Polarstern and Met City was not the only open water that posed a problem this week. After all this time, our trusty logistics area was targeted by the wrath of the dynamic ice as well. One moment the logistics area was standing strong as always, but the next moment a small crack sliced right through it, following all the way to the ROV City. Luckily, nothing was actually harmed by this crack, but the skidoos were awfully close, and the power line that used to run behind the crack needed to be readjusted. 

Image from the ice of the crack running through the logistics area.

This crack runs right across the pathway of where you need to walk to go basically anywhere on the ice in the central observatory. So it would potentially have caused quite a dilemma for getting out to the different sites on the floe to work. But luckily, the crack was small, and there was a short, ridged section at a kink in the crack that allowed us to walk across from the start. And since opening up, it has remained stable and eventually froze over, so crossing it has been no problem at all and we have been able to continue work as usual.

Enjoying the Sunshine

The sun shining brightly over the drifted snow formation. Photo by Elena Prieto.

We have had some very nice, sunny weather almost all of this week. In fact, I only had one full day off from flying, and the rest of the days had low enough winds and good enough visibility to fly for at least part of the day. This means that I have had to add another few items to my list of things to grab when going on the ice: sunglasses and sunscreen. Somehow, I have managed to forget the sunscreen every time, so my face is getting a little bit of a tan these days. But I never forget the sunglasses, or if I do, I have to go back for them. I simply cannot function without them. Even in heavy overcast, the reflection of the sun on all the white surface still makes it difficult to see without some protection.

Picnic on the ice to enjoy the evening sunshine. Photo by Laura Wischnewski.

We have been taking advantage of the sun to plan some evening activities out on the ice. There have been different evening walks planned on the ice, as a nice chance to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. On the day of the picture above, we took a short stroll out past Balloon Town and had a picnic with chocolate (in liquid and solid form). Even though I am outside in the sun for the majority of most days, it is still nice to go out when I am not working, and just lay on the snow and take it all in.

Tanz in den Mai

In Germany, it is a tradition to celebrate the coming of May with a walk outside on the 30th of April and then at night, dance into the new month. This is called “Tanz in den Mai.” So we made our own version of this, which began with a “City Crawl” on the ice. The original idea was to have every city on the ice offer a different drink or activity for people to enjoy as they toured around. But with so many cracks making access to several of the cities more difficult, we contained the gathering to the central location of Ocean City, Balloon Town, and a BGC site. Each of these groups offered a different vibe and activity at their site.

The Ocean City exhibit at the City Crawl.

At Ocean City, there was a tropical theme, and gin and tonic was offered out of the CTD inside the tent, topped with a dried orange. It was served in glasses made out of ice cores, designed by the ice team. The hint of salt from the sea ice glass added a perfect spice to the drink. The tent was decorated with twinkle lights and balloons, and we formed a little dance party inside where you could go to warm up.

The Balloon Town exhibit at the City Crawl.

At Balloon Town, the atmosphere team had built a bar out of ice (which I contributed to making), where beer was served. The vibe here was a little bit more relaxed, and there was a nice sitting area where Miss Piggy is launched, for people to relax and chat.

The BGC exhibit at the City Crawl.

The wildest activity was at the BGC tent, where they had drilled a few holes in the ice, which were filled with various different beverages, and people could drink out of the holes in the ice with a straw. I have never tasted a fresher sip of champagne than the one I drank out of the Arctic sea ice that evening.

After the “City Crawl” on the ice was over, we headed back onto the ship for a gathering, and danced into May.

Looking Forward

View out past DroneVille 2.0 while polar bear guarding. Convective clouds were made possible by the warm moist air coming from the Atlantic, to the south.

It is pretty wild, the cycle we have gone through in terms of how long this leg of the expedition is supposed to last. First, we were expecting to leave in early April, and having only arrived to the Polarstern in the end of February, this time felt too short and everything was rushed. Then, we were told we would be staying to continue science until the start of June, when the resupply vessel would arrive with the next crew. All of a sudden, the time left on the leg seemed dauntingly long, and the sense of urgency and a bit of motivation went away. But now suddenly, the plan has shifted again so that we cease science in just a few days, and once again, the time seems to be coming to a close too quickly. Quite a whirlwind.

I am definitely happy that we were able to stay a bit longer than originally planned, as going home in the start of April would have been much too short, and I would have been extremely sad to leave so soon. But now, as our time on the floe is coming to a close soon, I feel that I am ready. I think I have had enough time to accomplish what I have wanted to science-wise, and after two months without a true full day off, except maybe one or two here and there, I am tired. I feel that I have made the most of my time here, and I am ready to go home in a few weeks. But with the time left, I am taking every single moment to soak up all the beauty and wonder of the Arctic so that I can hold it within me forever.

Lone Arctic Oven standing strong in the elements.

In the next week, I will be getting in as many flights as I can before packing the floe becomes the priority starting on May 5. While I do that, I will be taking my time outside to appreciate the little things: the intricate subtleties in the cloud formations, the delicate ice crystals that form on the edges of leads and on the newly frozen ocean, the gentle and refreshing bite of the cold wind on my cheeks. I will stare at one of my favorite views a moment longer each day: the lone Arctic Oven standing up against the elements. Soon I will need to take the tent down and say goodbye to this home that has brought me such comfort and warmth and protection while working on the ice for the past few months. But as sad as it will be, I will be ready for it, and for the next step of the journey: preparing to sail and heading home.

Seventh Week on the Polarstern

April 17 – April 23

Throughout this week, the weather was not so great, so we did not get to do as many flights as we had been used to doing for the past two weeks. In fact, we were only able to fly for 1 day out of the week – the first day. Our flights on the 17th were very exciting, because we were able to sample this warm front coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, a 10+ meter-wide lead had opened up behind Met City, so we were able to do our first real lead sampling flight! One of our main scientific goals for this project is to measure the difference in atmospheric dynamics properties upwind and downwind of a lead. Unfortunately, our lead sampling flight in the morning was cut quite short because we needed to be on the ground for the return of the helicopter to the central observatory.

Crack between the Polarstern and DroneVille.

We planned to continue flying in the afternoon to do a longer lead sampling flight, but first we did a usual profile flight up to 1000 m. We were about to get prepared to launch again for a full lead sampling flight, which would have been our fourth flight of the day, and a MOSAiC record for number of drone flights in one day, but then a large crack started to open up between DroneVille and the Polarstern, as you can see in the picture above. Since it could not be known how far this crack would spread, and if we might get stranded on the far side of it, we were told to return for the ship, cutting our flight operations short for the day. I was pretty disappointed that we did not get to do a full lead sampling flight, or break our record, but in the end, the ice makes the decision, and you just have to listen.

Another crack between the Polarstern and DroneVille/Met City.

The next day, however, the weather was still somewhat good for flying in the morning at least, and the lead behind Met City was still opened, so we planned to go do a real full lead sampling flight. We had to cross a small-ish crack to get to DroneVille, but this was made pretty easy with a wooden plank put over the crack as a bridge. When we got to our tent, we began setting up our station as usual. But not even 5 minutes later, after just finishing setting up the launcher, we were told that the crack we had crossed was continuing to open up, and we needed to come back across, in case it would move more, and we would be stuck on the other side. We especially should not put a plane in the air, because it would be too slow to abort our operations if we suddenly needed to cross back over the crack. So we packed up and headed back to the Polarstern side of the crack.

An a more goofy note, I have started a “dangerous landings” meme, where I put the DataHawk in a precarious position, and take a photo to put on Pictures of the Day, to pretend I had landed the plane that way. It’s probably stupid, but I think it’s pretty funny. And I have fun with it anyway. You can see two of my memes in the pictures above.

Enjoying some french pressed coffee while watching the crack move.

Back on the other side of the crack, we observed for a little while how the crack was moving farther apart, and then back together, and then shearing a bit. It was very cool to watch how quickly the ice moves, you can really see it happening in real time. At this point, it was clear we would not have time for a flight this morning, even if the crack solidified, which it never did. So John headed back to the ship, but I stayed and hung out with crew who had been trying to get to Met City, and we made some french pressed coffee to enjoy while we watched the crack doing its thing. Something about drinking french pressed coffee out in the elements brings me such comfort. I think it reminds me of all of my kayaking trips, when it was a treat to enjoy a cup or two of coffee on a down day, the warm liquid in my belly with the cold wind on my face. It feels like home.

Met City and DroneVille party goofing after being called back across the crack.

So even though we did not get to fly this day, I still had a really enjoyable morning. We never did go back across the crack that day, but sitting and enjoying each other’s company and the warmth of the coffee by the small bit of open water was a perfect morning in a different way.

DroneVille in Trouble

Giant lead that opened up between the Polarstern and DroneVille/Met City. In the upper left you can also see the crack between the DroneVille tent and our runway.

The following few days were very poor weather for flying. A pretty unique storm rolled through, with winds coming from the south, bringing a warm Atlantic air mass. This is a wind direction opposite of what we normally get. Additionally, with the influence of the storm from the south, large swells near the ice edge were sending a signal our way. And when that signal reached us, it wreaked havoc on the floe.

Rescue team kayaking across the giant lead to save the power line. Left photo by Julia Schmale. Right photo by Andi Preußer.

Some very large leads opened up between the Polarstern and DroneVille/Met City that day. You can see in the picture two above, there is even a significant crack between the DroneVille tent, and our landing strip to the right. But the main threat posed by these leads was to the power line to Met City. After something like 10 days back on line power, this was brought to another end. As the lead opened larger and larger, many people rushed out to try to put more slack in the power line, but also keep it out of the water. It looked like a game of tug-of-war between the scientists and the ice. I bet you can guess who was stronger.

At a certain point, the power line had to be disconnected and I am not entirely sure what happened next, maybe the two ends of the disconnected line were in the water? Whatever it was that happened, it was necessary to get to the other side of the lead, and the only means of transportation was in a kayak. So a few lucky people (or maybe not lucky, but rather, experienced logistics team members) got to kayak in the lead. It looked like they were just kayaking in a river next to the snow-covered earth, just a typical every-day activity.

Logistics team member Saga Svavarsdottir kayaking in the lead. Photo by Julia Schmale.

Sadly, during most of this time, I was in our lab on the ship, being filmed by the German film crew, talking about what we have learned from our data so far, before John would leave the ship. The film crew wanted to get this footage to put all of our drone flying in more of a scientific context, and also grasp some sort of a handover between John and I, in terms of how to process the data and what to look for in the plots. This was fun too, but I would have much rather been outside and part of the action.

Sitting on the edge of the crack between our tent and runway while rescuing our equipment from the Arctic Oven.

The next day, when the cracks had closed a little bit, and were fairly stable, we put together a rescue party. Some people wanted to go to Met City to set up the generator again, to keep the instruments running, and John and I wanted to go to DroneVille to take all our stuff out of the tent (tables, chairs, antenna, launcher) because if the tent were to get swallowed by a lead, it would be somewhat ok to lose the tent itself, we could find a replacement on board, but we could not easily replace the rest of those items.

It ended up being not that difficult to get to DroneVille that day, but still required us to cross three different cracks to get to the tent. In the picture above, you can see the crack between our tent and our runway (which is to the left of the crack, but not shown in the picture), close up. The idea started to enter our minds that perhaps we would need to relocate DroneVille entirely. This would mean taking down the Arctic Oven, which would be a feat in itself, as all the ice stakes were buried in a meter or so of snow. But the even bigger feat would be to find a new place for DroneVille. When we put the tent up the first time, we had found basically the only viable option of where to fly, that met all of our requirements: far enough from the ship and Balloon Town, with a fairly long stretch of flat ice to launch and land the plane, and where we would not be flying over any other installations on the ice.

At this point, we did not make the decision to take down the tent yet, as we were still hoping these cracks would close up and we could still use the original DroneVille, but we did start to think about other options of where to fly, if it came to that. After some discussion with some members of the ice team, they generously offered us a slice of one of their snow sites (snow 2), that had already been somewhat destroyed by skidoos and people trampling on the snow, and was the only other plot of land that fit all our requirements. These snow sites are large plots of (what is supposed to be) untouched snow that they can sample throughout the expedition, but people are often accidentally walking off the roads onto this preserved snow, especially in white out conditions. As a result, the area of preserved snow has been slowly decreasing throughout the expedition, so I am extremely appreciative that they would willingly sacrifice a significant chunk of one of these sites for me to fly. After showing me this area, I told them that I would keep it in mind, but I was hoping to still make it work at the original DroneVille location.

Crossing a lead using a float, while going to DroneVille to take down the tent. Photo by Julia Schmale.

Later that day, I changed my mind. To get a sense of how easy or difficult it would be to access our tent and runway, Julia and I took a walk out to DroneVille. Or at least we tried to. After over a half hour of scouting, we saw that it could MAYBE be possible to get to the tent, but would take another half hour at least to make it happen. I realized then, that this would not be sustainable to wake up each morning not knowing for sure if we could make it to DroneVille, and then if possible, having to scout a new route depending on how the cracks had moved. I would not be able to productively conduct my science, unless I moved DroneVille. So the next day, I got some volunteers to help me take down the tent. We had to cross a few cracks again to get there, one being quite large and requiring us to put down a float on the thin ice to get across.  

The hole left from where the Arctic Oven was.

Once we arrived, we got to work to take the tent down. The most difficult part of the process was digging the ice stakes and bottom of the tent out of the deep snow. This part took over an hour. After everything was dug out, the actual taking down of the tent was quite fast, and we were able to get it down by the end of the morning. As we worked, we could hear and see the crack between the tent and the runway moving still, which further reaffirmed my decision to move DroneVille, despite the amount of work it would be, and despite losing a day of beautiful flying weather to do it. But it was necessary to be productive for the rest of the time I am here.

DroneVille 2.0

The view of the Polarstern from DroneVille 2.0.

In the afternoon that day, I got back to work to set up the tent in its new location. I headed out with two helpers plus a bear guard, expecting the experience to be long and dreadful like the last time we set up the tent. I was skeptical we would be able to accomplish this in just one afternoon, as it had taken a full day last time. But to my delight, when we stuck a shovel into the snow at the new site, we discovered that the snow was only about 3 inches deep. This meant we did not have to dig an entire meter deep, 10 x 10 ft snow pit like we had last time. Instead, we could simply set up the tent right on top of the snow, and dig through the snow a few inches just where we would put the ice stakes. It ended up taking less than an hour to set it up, from start to finish. And the inside of the tent this time was perfectly flat, as opposed to all squished and steep like the last location, which had had quite bumpy ice beneath the bottom of the tent.

Standing my ground as the mayor of DroneVille 2.0.

I was relieved with how fast the process was, and am now very happy to have a much more spacious tent, as well as a beautiful long runway where I can launch and land the planes. As I am not the most experienced pilot, the more space for me to line up my landing, the better, especially without John here now. And it is only fitting that the new reign of Gina as mayor of DroneVille is coupled with a new location of the tent. It feels like starting over fresh, and gives me a sense of a clean slate to make it what I need to be successful in these operations without John.

Weather Extremes

Beautiful blowing snow in high winds. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

Over this week, we have experienced quite a variety of different extreme weather conditions. One day, it was a perfectly sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, but we also had 20 m/s winds, a combination that has not happened before. The result was incredible. In the evening, the wind was blowing from the direction the sun was shining from, and the snow was drifting over a field of ridges straight toward me, as I stood on the deck and looked in the direction of the sun. Words cannot even describe it, and pictures or videos cannot fully capture it. But at least this one above does a pretty good job. I was in complete wonder as I watched the snow blow over the ridges. I would have stayed and stared forever, but the biting wind in my face, feeling like a thousand tiny needles, forced me back inside eventually.

Comfortably wearing summer clothing outside in the Arctic.

We had our warmest temperatures of the expedition this week. At the surface, the air temperature actually rose just slightly above 0 °C (32 °F) during the storm that brought in the southerly Atlantic winds. I can’t believe it got above the freezing point in the Arctic in only April! I don’t think this is normal. It’s almost as if the climate is changing. I was able to comfortably stand on the deck in my shorts, T-shirt, and crocs, where I was somewhat protected from the wind, for a significant amount of time. It felt wrong, but also was pretty fun.

Frost flowers on an open lead. Photo by Markus Frey.

With consistent warmer temperatures, the leads do not freeze over as quickly, which results in some pretty gorgeous settings. Not only are there hundreds of frost flowers, but you can also see the ice below the surface, in places, and it is such a beautiful teal color. Even with so many leads opening up around us, I still sometimes lose the sense that we are floating, since the ice feels like the ground, and leads are just rivers. But seeing the ice below the surface reminds me that we’re floating above the deep ocean, which is always exhilarating to think about.

Intricate and delicate frost flower on newly frozen lead. Photo by Julia Schmale.

Twin Otter Flight

Twin Otter flying in, to land on the runway near the Polarstern. Photo by Laura Wischnewski.

This week, the long-awaited evacuation flights happened, that took John away. On the afternoon of the 22nd, two Twin Otter aircrafts appeared in the sky, seemingly appearing out of nothingness, and landed on the runway that had been built on the ice. After many lead events, and resulting ridging, the runway had been broken up into smaller and smaller pieces throughout our leg. By this time, there was only a few hundred meters of continuous flat ice for the planes to land, but this is no problem for a Twin Otter.

Twin Otters on the runway, with the helicopter coming to drop off the passengers. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

Soon after the planes landed, the helicopter shuttled the 7 people leaving the ship (5 scientists, 1 logistics person, and 1 crew member) over to the runway. I watched from above the helicopter deck on the ship as John got into the helicopter, feeling somewhat sad that he would be leaving us, but mostly feeling happy for him that he would soon be with his family where his heart would be content again. Out at the runway, I watched with squinting eyes as the people boarded the planes. Then, I watched as the planes gathered speed within these few hundred meters of runway, took off into the air and disappeared into nothingness once again. Within only about an hour of when they arrived, they were gone. And we were 7 people less. 

Maybe it was because the whole process was so smooth and fast, or maybe it was because I had been preparing for this evacuation for weeks, that it didn’t even feel like anything that monumental had happened. It just felt natural. But in an hour, I went from the lowly PhD student, answering to her adviser, to the leader of the project on board. I had been mentally preparing for this for quite some time, so I was ready. And excited to start this next segment of my journey.

Polar Bear!

Polar bear visiting DroneVille. Photo by Julia Schmale.

The week had already been quite eventful, but to add even another thing to it, we had our first polar bear sighting! I woke up in the morning, thinking everything was normal, going about my merry way getting ready for breakfast, when I heard an announcement over the speakers that there would be a mandatory meeting at 8:30 am because there was a polar bear outside. Did I hear that right? A polar bear? Could it really be? It had been so long without seeing one, and of course we have been taking our myriad polar bear precautions every day, but I kind of had dismissed the possibility of actually seeing one. Or at least hadn’t been thinking about it much.

I rushed to the bridge immediately to see if I could see the bear. Sure enough, there it was, standing a few hundred meters behind Met City! Even with the binoculars, it was still pretty difficult to see, but it was definitely a polar bear, no doubt about it. And it was not always so far away! It was first spotted around 6:30 am by the nightly bridge watch person, in the logistics area, just 50 meters or so from the ship! After that, it made its way out to DroneVille, where it apparently sniffed around our tent for a little while.

Then it returned to the logistics area for a bit, but then headed to a few hundred meters behind Met City, where it parked itself at a lead, waiting for seals. After over an hour of standing there, it laid down. The bear was probably preparing to lay there all day waiting for a seal. But not too much later, I watched from the deck of the ship as the bear took off in a sprint, and disappeared behind some far ridges, never to be seen again. Five minutes later, we were given the go-ahead to depart the ship out onto the ice for our daily work. The whole thing only delayed our morning by a half hour!

Polar bear paw print in the snow.

This was the day I took down my tent, so at that point, I headed out to the spot the bear had just been. Sadly, by the time we got there, I was too distracted with everything else going on to look for prints at DroneVille. But luckily, I was able to spot some later that day, as I took a stroll next to a lead to look at frost flowers. Their paws are so huge! But normally I would think they would be even bigger, so perhaps this wasn’t the largest bear out there. Sitting there looking at the print in front of me, it was crazy to think that less than a day earlier, a lethal animal was standing right where I sat. It helped to remind me a bit that we do have dangerous neighbors who are kind enough to let us live in their home for a little while, but they do not always have to be so nice. So we need to be vigilant.

The Exchange

Throughout the past weeks, there has been heavy discussion about how the exchange with the next group of scientists in these times of corona will go. Many different options for an exchange at the MOSAiC floe, using various different icebreakers and passenger vessels have come and gone, and in the end, due to travel restrictions and ice class restrictions set for all the considered ships, there is no combination of freight and passenger vessels that will make this possible. So the decision has been made that the Polarstern will have to leave the floe, do a remote exchange, and return with the next group of scientists.

The plan is that the Polarstern will sail out of the ice and meet two German research vessels (RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian) in a fjord in Svalbard, where the exchange will occur. After the exchange the Polarstern will then return to the floe with the next group of scientists, and we will sail to Bremerhaven, Germany. From there, flights back to everybody’s home country will be arranged. The handover in the fjord is planned to begin on May 23. Taking into account time to pack up the ice camp and sail, we plan to cease scientific activity for leg 3 after May 4, to pack up the floe and be ready to sail on May 15.

Looking Forward

New DataHawk operations crew: Andi on the left and Julia in the middle.

After setting up DroneVille 2.0, my new DataHawk crew and I enjoyed some hot chocolate to inaugurate the rising of a new town on the MOSAiC floe. Yes, it is technically the same as the original DroneVille, just in a new spot, but something about it feels entirely new. Perhaps because I am in charge now, so I feel a great sense of ownership over it. This is my land now.

In the next two weeks or so, until it is time to cease science and pack up the floe, I am excited to get in as many flights as I can, and I am thrilled to have two great ground station pilots by my side. Though we may not complete as many flights each day as we did when John and I were both here, as I am at the mercy of the schedule of my co-pilots, and my own mental capacity to be on the manual controls, I am still proud to be carrying this project on in any way. I feel good getting any amount of additional data that would otherwise have been lost.

Lead between the old DroneVille and Met City, observed while taking down the tent.

My main goal for the last two weeks before the end of leg 3 is to complete some more lead sampling flights. This is a crucial time to sample the boundary layer atmosphere upwind and downwind of leads, as the air is still somewhat cold compared to the water, and the impacts on low level turbulence should be different than when our leg 4 team members arrive, and the air is already much warmer. As sampling this type of environment is one of our main scientific goals for MOSAiC, I am eager to rise to the challenge, and gather some of these data. And with so many leads opening up around the Polarstern daily, this should be very possible.

Sixth Week on the Polarstern

April 10 – April 16

Photo by Michael Gutsche

DataHawk Progress

Flying the DataHawk with manual control. Photo by Calle Schönning.

This week we flew a LOT. Since we had a stretch of great weather last week, and through the beginning of this week too, by April 11, we had been flying for 7 days in a row, for two or three flights each day (besides at the beginning of this stretch where we had some crash landings due to various issues). I had been the RC (remote control) pilot (the one who holds the remote control and flies in manual for take-off and landing) for at least two flights each of these days, for 5 days in a row. So I got a lot of practice in! And I was able to consistently land the plane where I wanted it without damage. This was the plan, so that I could build up my confidence with manual flights a bit more before John leaves. We also had Julia out flying with us for a lot of days in the week, practicing the ground control procedure. Additionally, we trained another person, Andi, on how to operate the ground station in the lab, though he did not yet have a chance to actually come fly with us in the field. One day, John did not do anything for either of the flights we did, he just supervised Julia while I flew on the RC. After this day, and everything went smoothly, we knew I would be able to carry out this project on my own, with Julia helping me.

Even though we had flown for 7 days in a row, and we were getting pretty tired, we wanted to push one day more because then it would be Easter, followed by some potentially bad weather days, and we would rather take a day off then. But then John remembered to look back in our flight operations manual for MOSAiC to see if there was any stipulation on how many days we were legally allowed to fly. Sure enough, there is a section that reads: “should weather conditions allow for several consecutive flight days, the crew will be required to take a down day after six consecutive flight days.” We had already flown for 7 consecutive days, oops.

DataHawk in flight.

So we were thinking we would have to take Saturday off, to comply with this regulation, which I think we requested be put into the rules, so that we would not burn ourselves out.  But in the moment, we wanted to break the rule since the weather was so nice and we wanted to take the next day off instead. But then we remembered something: a few days back, Julia and I had done all the flights and John had just watched. And Julia had not been out flying with us every day. So only I had reached my legal limit of 6 consecutive days on the flight crew, John and Julia had not. They could still fly together, as long as I did not do anything. I still came out with them though, and it was a bit tough for me to just sit back and not do anything, I just wanted to be part of the excitement and be useful. But I did my best. The nice part about just watching though, was that I was able to spend some time taking pictures of the DataHawk in flight! I will probably not have another chance to do this.

Drone image of our operations. DataHawk can be seen as small black blur a little above our heads. Photo by Manuel Ernst.

One of the days that we were out flying, the German documentary film crew joined us with their quadcopter drone, so they could fly at the same time as we did, to get some aerial footage of the DataHawk flying. We set the DataHawk to loiter in a circle 30m above the ground, and once we were confident it was behaving correctly, the film crew launched their drone. They got some pretty neat video of our operations from above, though the DataHawk is pretty difficult to see sometimes because it is so small. In the photo above, you can see it as a small black blur a little bit above our heads. The picture below shows the DataHawk flying in the other direction, and can be seen a bit more clearly.

Drone image of DataHawk in flight. Photo by Manuel Ernst.

Though most of the week went perfectly, the week was not without some frustrations. It seems that whenever we are in a routine of everything going smoothly and think we have dealt with our last major problem, another thing pops up that we had never thought to pay attention to, but in the end causes issues with our flights. This week, it was the motors. On the 15th, in the middle of the first flight of the day, when the plane was around 300m in altitude, the motor cut out. You can hear it clearly when this happens, and afterwards, the plane will continue to follow its programmed flight path, to allow for a controlled descent to the ground. But at some point, manual controls need to be taken to safely land the plane. Though I was the RC pilot for this flight, John offered to do the landing, as he is a more experienced pilot than I am. I accepted this offer, and he was able to land the plane in a flat spot next to Met City, though we did have to climb over some ridges to get to it. Upon inspection, it seemed that everything else on the plane was functioning fine besides the motor.

We got another plane out so that we could continue to fly. There was a warm front coming in this day, so we were very interested to sample it. The next flight went smoothly, no problems there. We came back out in the afternoon to continue flying, and to our dismay and confusion, again at about 300m altitude, the plane’s motor cut out. What the heck was happening?! We have no motor problems for the whole campaign and then all of a sudden two in one day? I was the RC pilot again for this flight, but instead of handing the controls to John I wanted to do this no-power landing, since when he is gone, I cannot just hand the RC off to someone else. I will have to do it. In the end, I was able to land the plane just a few meters away from the DroneVille tent. I was pretty impressed with this landing, and it gave me confidence in my piloting skills to know that I can glide a plane into where I want it without power.

We would have wanted to keep flying after this, but we were confused why we had two motor failures in one day, and thought it best to return to the ship and try to figure out what had happened, instead of risking it happening to a third plane. Upon inspection of the planes back on board, we could see that both motors had been fried in flight, due to too much current being run to them from the batteries. On the second plane, we had noticed some icing on the propeller, so perhaps due to the specific atmospheric conditions of the day, causing some icing, the motors had to work harder to keep the plane going at the speed we told it to go.

I was able to replace the motor of the first plane that failed, and got it back up and working, no problem. Unfortunately, the problem with the second plane seemed to be a bit deeper than simply a motor failure. It seems that the shorting had extended somehow back to the autopilot board, somehow disrupting the motor’s ability to get power. This plane we have had to retire, but can hopefully be fixed by somebody on the next leg who has more knowledge of the intricacies of these planes. At this point, we have had to retire 3 planes, but 2 of them might still be repairable. We came into the expedition with a total of 15 planes, expecting to face issues like the ones we have faced. So really, we are doing pretty well in terms of burn-out rate, and should have plenty of planes left to continue flying throughout the length of the expedition.

Precarious landing of the DataHawk. Photo by Julia Schmale.

Even though most of my landings were smooth this week, depending on where the plane first touches down, a perfect landing might turn into a much less ideal scenario. This is because the ice is so slick, that there is so little friction to stop the plane from continuing to glide when it hits the ground, and sometimes the plane will slip right off a small bump of ice, acting as a ramp, and sending the plane to its final settling place, much farther down the line than where it first touched down. Sometimes the plane travels another 20 meters beyond where I mean to land it, which can lead to some sticky situations, like in the picture above. Luckily, however, the planes are so durable that usually this results in no damage to the plane, and can actually be pretty funny to watch!

Bonfire on the Ice

Bonfire on the ice.

On Saturday night, we had a bonfire out on the ice. I guess it is a German tradition to have a bonfire the night before Easter. It turned out to be one of the most fun nights I have had in the past few weeks, and I am not really sure why! I was just in a really great mood, and everyone else seemed to be too. Plus it was such a beautiful night, with clear skies and the vibrant sun shining brightly above the horizon. I am sure the warm whiskey and tea that was being served added to everyone’s joyous demeaner.

It is crazy to think back to the first bonfire we had on the ice, to say goodbye to the leg 2 participants, over a month ago. The twilight was just barely providing enough light to see the other people at that point. And now, it is almost as bright as the middle of the day. And just as the light has changed so much, so have I. The Gina who arrived on the Polarstern over a month ago is not the same Gina who is here today.

When I was young, I was so shy, afraid to talk to people who I did not know, especially asking questions or saying what I needed. Throughout my life, I have built my confidence to face various types of situations, but throughout this expedition, I have taken that confidence to a new level, and now it seems to extend into the professional realm, making me feel excited about my future prospects in academia. I have found myself no longer afraid to admit if I don’t know something, and instead just ask for clarification. I have also found myself more willing to ask for help, and then make my voice be heard to accomplish what I need, even in a room full of much more seasoned scientists and hardened Arctic expedition crew members. In the beginning of the journey, I saw myself as who I thought I was in the eyes of others: a young, inexperienced, silly girl, who has no authority. Even if this was not actually how others saw me, I let it make me feel small. But as I have taken on more and more responsibility, the person I see myself as through other peoples’ eyes has become closer to the person who I know I am. Still a young, silly girl (I will never sacrifice my goofy side entirely, for the sake of professionalism), but no longer unexperienced, and one who knows what she is doing, and is unafraid to advocate for herself and get the task done. And this takes my confidence to a place it has never been before.

But I am getting too deep, let’s get back to the party.

Progression of a game of ass hook.

We played some Ass Hook for the first time since Dranitsyn! I had been wanting to play for a long time, but there had never been an opportunity. You can see a play-by-play of how the game goes in the picture above. I lost all the matches I played, but I will blame that on my flexibility, which puts me in a situation where my opponent can easily take me down. But with this game, it is somewhat more fun to lose, because it means you get to do a little flip!  

Easter in the Arctic

View from the top of a large ridge near Met City.

Easter at the Polarstern was a very nice day. Since it was on Sunday, we already got the morning off, but most people, including myself, decided to take the whole day off from work, and enjoy the holiday. The atmosphere team took a stroll to the Met City Café (aka the Met Hut) in the early afternoon to share some coffee and chocolate. As some people performed some routine maintenance for a few minutes before the coffee was served, I took a little walk by myself down the road just a bit to the highest ridge around and climbed to the top. I ate some chocolate there as I looked out over the landscape, pictured above. It was such a peaceful moment to share with myself, and was made all the better by the chocolate, which was quite frozen, I might add. These moments of alone time are some of my favorite moments of all.

Pretending to be bunnies hopping across the ice.

After we shared some coffee (boiled and french pressed in the hut) and chocolate back at Met City, we did some goofing. I am not sure how the idea came up, but the videographer for the German documentary thought it would be really funny to film a few of us hopping across the sea ice like bunnies, with the barren landscape behind us. Would be a funny Easter goof, he thought. It was pretty entertaining that only the Americans in the group were interested in joining; I guess we, as a population, tend to not take things so seriously. Or maybe the few of us just happen to be that way. In the picture above, we have two of us hopping around, followed by a man with a rifle, saying “silly wabbit.” The whole thing was absolutely ridiculous, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it.

Ice fishing on a newly frozen lead.

After our time at Met City, Julia and I took a stroll around the rest of the floe. There are still so many places in the central observatory that I had never been, which is pretty wild after all this time. I guess I am always so busy with my work, there has not been time to explore anywhere besides where I happen to have done some bear guarding. So this was quite nice.

Along the stroll, we ran into a party of people doing some ice fishing on a somewhat newly frozen lead! They had cut holes in the ice, which was still half a meter or so thick, so they could lower their fishing lines down into the water below. The fishing lines apparently went down 200m deep! It was cool to watch the surface of the holes they cut start to freeze as they fished. I just observed for a little while. It was such a fun scene to happen upon, a bunch of people enjoying a chill afternoon of ice fishing, like it was nothing out of the ordinary. Just like another day in the life.

Mimosas on the deck before the Easter BBQ.

In the evening, we had an Easter BBQ. Like the last BBQ, they had grills set up out on the deck by the gangway, where we could cook our own meat. Back inside, there were many more side dishes to add to our plates. After the meal was complete, we cleared some tables away to make a dance floor. It was a very fun evening to share with some people who have become such good friends of mine. Part way through the evening, I realized, how crazy is it that we are in arguable the most remote place on the planet, yet are having probably one of the biggest gatherings on the planet, at this time? Where else on Earth right now would have 50+ people be gathered in one room for a celebration? What a wild concept to digest. 

NoodleVille (aka NewdleVille) Rises Again

The location of NewdleVille.

I said it would happen, and so it has! NoodleVille has risen again! But this time, it was a new name: NewdleVille. I was not part of constructing it this time, as I have been so busy flying, but it is very exciting that it is back up and taking measurements once again. This time, it is close to Ocean City, an area which has had very consistently stable ice this whole time.

Speaking of stability, the ice has been pretty solid for the past two weeks. The conversation of moving the ship to another part of the floe has ceased; it has comfortably remained in its same position, and power has been maintained continuously at all of the cities.

Looking Forward

Polarstern looking fine. Photo by Christian Rohleder.

There has been an interesting shift in the direction of the Polarstern’s drift. Throughout this past week, it shifted from drifting south to then west, then north for a while, and then to the east again. But the general trend has been a somewhat significant drift back north. As we near the ice edge, we are more influenced by North Atlantic weather systems, providing southerly winds that can be pretty warm. This past week we experienced temperatures as high as -1.3 °C (29.7 °F) along with the southerly winds. It was pretty crazy, I was able to stand outside in just a t-shirt and shorts for quite a long time before becoming uncomfortable. In fact, it was warmer here than it was in Colorado that day! In the coming week we can expect temperatures to hit 0 °C (32 °F), which means we might start to see some melt ponds! The melt season is just about upon us, and with it, should bring some really interesting ice and atmosphere dynamics.

Running through the pre-flight routine. Photo by Calle Schönning.

In the coming weeks, my work responsibilities will also shift a bit, when John leaves. As mentioned before, I will be taking over sole responsibility of the manual controls for all upcoming flights. Along with that, I will not only be in charge of plane maintenance and preparation (which has already been my job), I will also be in charge of flight logging, data processing, and uploading of data to the MOSAiC central storage (which has been John’s job). So far, John and I have been splitting these tasks, but still have both been working almost non-stop. So I expect by taking on the responsibility for all of this, I will be quite a bit busier. But I am confident I will be able to complete all my tasks each day, as long as I stay organized, especially since John has worked very hard to make the data processing routine as simple and fast as possible. And in the end, it should not be too long that I am running the project on my own, as the leg 3/4 exchange nears.

Fifth Week on the Polarstern

April 3 – April 9

Spirit Revival

Open lead running alongside Met City, with DroneVille visible just in front of the Polarstern.

From my last post, you may have been able to tell that I was not in the best of spirits last week. The consistent stormy weather had stopped me from getting outside and working much, so my energy was low. But this week was different, and it started out in such a wonderful way.

Since I was feeling pretty cooped up inside towards the end of last week I decided to start to make more of an effort to get outside and bear guard when we couldn’t fly, so I volunteered to go to Met City with some folks to do some routine checks. This was the first time I had been to Met City since that first lead opened up between it and the Polarstern, which then turned into a large ridge. It was so interesting to walk out there, noticing just how much this place has changed since that first time I was led to Met City at the beginning if March. Not only has the ice changed so much that it now takes a series of crack hopping and many twists and turns to get there, where before it was a straight flat path, the lighting is also so different, with the sun hiding behind the clouds or shining bright, instead of sitting just below the horizon. It is truly a new world, and I’m sure it will become yet a different world throughout the next months.

The scene already seems to change daily. On this day I was out, a lead had opened up from the front of the ship, curving around DroneVille and then along the side of Met City, running right along our infrastructure, but not cutting anything off or causing any damage. This was a nice lead. Beautiful and non-destructive. Not yet frozen over, so still having open water, the wind creating gentle ripples. It was thrilling to stand by it, knowing that just below was 4 km of cold darkness to the sea floor, but just a few feet away from the edge, standing on the ice, I was safe. By the next morning, the lead had already closed back up, so I was lucky to see it up close.

Lucy the Seal spotted in the open lead next to Met City. Photo taken by Julia Schmale.

As I stood watch for bears, I looked over towards the open lead and saw a small black dot. I didn’t think much of it, but looked closer out of curiosity. Then I realized what it was. A seal! Since the water had not frozen over yet, it provided an opening for this little guy to pop up for some air. I was flooded with joy and exhilaration at the site of my first wildlife out here. Sometimes I forget we share this space with some other creatures. I felt so lucky to have been there at just the right time to capture this rare moment. We named the seal Lucy.

Though it is exciting to see the return of the seals as we drift farther south, this also means we can expect the return of their predators sometime soon. That’s right, polar bears. So bear guarding is becoming a more serious job now, as the chance of seeing a polar bear increases every day. I wonder when the first one will be! I am very excited for this, but also hope that I am nearby the ship or onboard when it happens.

Heart shaped chunk of ice sitting outside of Met City.

As I stood at Met City scanning for bears, I spotted a chunk of ice balanced on top of a small mound, shaped just like a heart. I had to stop and stare. Had nature really created this on its own? I took this as message from the universe, reminding me of the mystique of this place, and showing me that there is love and beauty inherent in the world, you just need to be open to it. And it found me just when I needed it. After this trip to Met City, which only lasted about an hour, my spirit was revived and I was restored with the energy I had lost, and was ready for the week to show me what adventures were coming my way.

Camping on the Ice

Campsite on the ice. Photo taken by Eric Brossier.

On Saturday night, a camping trip was organized out on the ice. I had been wanting to do this, so I jumped at the opportunity. I had never been winter camping before, and what better time and place to start than here. I knew it might be really cold, but I wanted to experience it nonetheless, just to know what it is like to spend a full night out in these extreme conditions.

We left the Polarstern around 9pm. There were just eleven of us. We loaded up some pulkas with the tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads from the emergency boxes. We walked out about 15 minutes to this spot behind a large ridge that you can see us standing on in this picture. This was an awesome spot because when we stood close enough to the ridge, we couldn’t see the ship at all. We could convince ourselves we were really out there alone. But I felt safe knowing I did still have a warm place to go if anything went wrong.

Playing frisbee at the camping trip.

When we first got to the campsite, we set up our tents. They were the same ones I have used in Alaska before, so I was familiar with the setup. It was definitely different to be putting the stakes into snow instead of dirt, but they still held just as well where the snow was deep. Where the snow was not deep, we used ice screws to hold the tent down. Then we goofed around for a while, playing frisbee, sledding down the ridge on the pulkas or on our butts, and then gathering in the one large “mess tent” for some tea, gin, and whiskey.

Our view of the sun and the Polarstern at midnight, from the campsite.

At midnight, we hopped out of the mess tent to see the literal midnight sun. It was shining bright just a little bit above the horizon out there. I had never seen the sun above the horizon at midnight before, so this was a first for me, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of contentment. This place has become a true home to me, and I feel so comfortable here. In moments like this, the thought of going home makes me truly sad.

We alternated hour-long bear guarding shifts throughout the night, and mine started at 2am, so I stayed awake and out there until 3am. In the few hours between midnight and then, a cloud layer had rolled in, and taken the sun away, replacing it with a blank canvas of white across the sky, making the features of the ice blend right in with it.

When I finally went to into the tent to sleep, and got into my sleeping bag, I was a bit chilly for a while, even though the sleeping bags are super fluffy. After maybe a half hour adjusting my layers and cuddling with some hand and foot warmers, my body temperature was up high enough for me to fall asleep. I slept like a rock until 9am. Then we packed up and headed back to the ship.

The whole experience was so lovely. The best part of it was the peace and quiet and happy loneliness of being away from the ship. Especially in the middle of the night, during my bear guarding shift, when everyone else was asleep, with no sounds except for the whistle of the gentle wind, looking out toward the vast emptiness. It was a sense of serenity unlike I have ever felt before. And it is a feeling I will never forget.

DataHawk Progress

John and I preparing to take-off, with him on the ground station, and me on the remote controller. Photo taken by Delphin Ruche.

After many stormy days last week, we were finally blessed with great weather this week. But that didn’t mean things ran smoothly with the DataHawks. At least not at first. The first two days of flying this week were pretty rough. The first day of flying, I was on the manual controls, and John ran the ground station. After the launch, I sent the plane into autopilot so it could track the flight pattern on its own. But when the plane was flying in auto, soon after the beginning the flight, I noticed the plane started dipping very low. It was supposed to be flying at an altitude of 50m, but suddenly it looked like it must be only 10m or so above the surface. I took back manual controls to try to recover it, but it did not seem to be responding to my commands. And then it went fully down, just on the edge of a small open water crack. It was not too far away, but we had to cross over a ridge to get to it. When we got to the plane, we noticed that the power was off. It seemed there had been some sort of electronics failure that had brought the plane down. We have not been able to figure out what happened, or get the electronics to work again, and thus have been forced to retire that plane.

The next day, John was on the manual controls for our first (and what ended up being our only) flight. We ran the initialization like normal, and launched the plane. But this time, when John flipped into autopilot, I could see on the ground station screen that the plane was still several hundred meters away from the location of its flight path circles. The meant the plane had to travel another 200 m or so in the direction it was heading to get to these circles. But it was about 200 m from the ship. So I told John that the plane looked like it might get dangerously close to the ship if allowed to continue on that track. Even though the plane was a little far away, it was still the only option to take it back into manual control to prevent it from hitting the ship. Unfortunately, it was too far to really capture the orientation, and the plane ended up taking a pretty hard crash into the snow.

We felt pretty defeated. This was our second flight in a row that had ended in an unexpected crash. We thought we had solved all the problems, so why was this still happening? What we couldn’t understand is how the autopilot circles had moved so far away from where we thought they were. But then we did a calculation about how fast the ice was drifting and how long the flight initialization had taken, and we realized that we had in fact drifted about 200 m. We had had this issue before, with the autopilot circles moving in relation to us as the ice drifted, and we had made the plan to move these circles on the laptop in flight to adjust for it. But on this day, the direction of the ice drift was southeast instead of south, which made it such that it brought the circles closer to the ship, so they were already in a dangerous spot before the flight began. After this experience, we knew what we needed to do to fix this problem.

Running the ground station during plane initialization from the inside of the Arctic Oven. Photo taken by Delphin Ruche.

So we added an extra step in our pre-flight routine. After the plane initialization, just before launch, we place the plane on the launcher, and see where it is in relation to the autopilot circles on the screen. The distance and direction the plane moves in relation to these circles during the pre-flight routine is different every flight, depending on the drift speed and direction in that moment. So the way we move the circles is different every time. Then throughout, the flight, we continue to move the circles as the ice drifts, to keep the plane where we want it. Since we implemented this additional step, we have had no more out-of-control-plane situations. Every flight has gone smoothly, and the plane has remained just where we want it from launch to land! It seems that we have solved our last major problem!

Training Julia on how to operate the ground station for a DataHawk flight. Photo taken by Eric Brossier.

Another key part of this week has been training our atmosphere team leader, Julia, on how to operate the ground station. In the coming weeks, I will begin carrying out the project on my own. But our flight procedure needs two people, a pilot on the remote control, and one on the ground station. So if I am to carry this out on my own, I need help from someone to run the ground station, as I fly manual for the flights. Julia has volunteered to fill that role when she is available.

Julia releasing the DataHawk off the launcher, for one of her first times. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

So for several days this week, Julia joined us at DroneVille and carried out the role of the ground station pilot while John or I flew the plane, and the other one of us guided her on the laptop. She has gotten the hang of it pretty well already in just a few days of practice, so I think she will be a great addition to the team. She has especially improved on the strategy to hold the plane on the launcher under the immense force of the bungee, so the plane doesn’t launch all sideways, like in the photo above. Luckily, I was able to recover the plane from this wonky angle and take it into the air for a successful flight.

This was a very flight-heavy week, which was pretty awesome, since I enjoy being on the ice, and like to stay preoccupied. Throughout the week, we did 7 successful flights (and 2 unsuccessful flights) which is a record! And we are getting very comfortable and confident with the routine, so I think we are in a really good position to start making a ton of progress.

Mysterious Airplane

Mysterious airplane flying above the Polarstern. Photo taken by Frederic Tardeck.

One afternoon, John and I were on the deck of the ship, binding s remote control to one of the DataHawks, when all of a sudden, we heard what sounded like an airplane coming by. We turned around to see that we were in fact correct! An airplane was flying only a few hundred meters above the ice surface, to the right of the ship! What the heck! What was an airplane doing here? We continued to watch it, as it continued to circle the ship several times before eventually flying away. You can see it along the top of the picture above.

Danish border control aircraft. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

We were very confused. We are not used to seeing anything in the air besides our drones and the helicopter, so this was pretty shocking and seemed so out of place. We were able to see, when it flew close, that there was a Danish flag on the plane. Turns out it was a Danish border control plane, coming to check us out because we are getting pretty close to Danish waters surrounding Greenland. That was pretty wild. Something new and surprising seems to happen every day, and you never know what it’s going to be!

Group Photos

Group photo of the leg 3 science team. Photo taken by Michael Gutsche.

We hadn’t taken any full group pictures since boarding the Polarstern, so we thought it was about time! On Thursday morning, we gathered on the ice to take this picture. What an interesting and diverse group of people all gathered in one place. The group of people here with me throughout this journey. The group of people I may be spending another few months with. The group of people around for perhaps the most momentous experience of my life so far. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful people. There are many characters I will never forget.

Atmosphere team group photo. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

We also took an atmosphere team photo. These are the people I work most closely with, when it comes to the science. We all gather together twice a week to meet about our progress, as well as discuss any problems and help we need from each other. It is a very supportive group, and everybody is willing to lend a hand to help each other out when necessary. It has been such a pleasure to work with these people so far, and I look forward to our continued time together.

DroneVille Cracks

Posing with the crack along our runway. Photo taken by John Cassano.

There have been several small cracks that have opened up around DroneVille, though none cause any problems for our operations as of now. The one in the picture above is running across our “runway” just a few feet in front of our launcher. This adds yet another obstacle to our landing. We already need to fly just barely above a small ridge and the Met City power line before landing, and now there is a crack to avoid too. So I am forced to improve my landing skills, to dodge all these obstacles. I have been slowly improving but still have a long way to go. By the end of this expedition, I will be an expert.

Risky but skilled landing of the DataHawk. Photo taken by John Cassano.

This crack runs across the road leading to DroneVille, separating DroneVille from the Polarstern. There is another crack like this a little way back, across the road as well. Combining all these cracks, DroneVille effectively became Drone Island for a day or two, until the cracks stopped moving, and the water between refroze. Fingers crossed they stay this way! Otherwise our tent might float away! But the fun part about the cracks is they give us a chance to practice some crazy landing positions, like the one in the photo above! (just kidding, this is very posed)

Looking Forward

Just another day at the office. Photo taken by Delphin Ruche.

Sometimes when I get so focused on the task at hand, I forget about my surroundings. This often happens when we’re flying the drones, I am just concentrating on completing all the steps to get the plane safely in the air and back down again. I sometimes forget how wild what we are doing truly is, and how intense the conditions are, since I am just used to it at this point. But when I see a picture like this, all bundled up, working on a laptop on some sea ice in -15°F temperatures, I remember how ridiculous and incredible what we are accomplishing is, and I feel proud to be part of such a novel project. This gives be a boost of motivation to continue working for the additional weeks or months we will be out here.

Launching the DataHawk off the rails for one of the last times. Photo taken by Delphin Ruche.

In the past weeks, I have gotten very comfortable handling the plane on the launcher, getting to know the best strategy of how to sit and how to hold the plane under the force of the bungee. And I’ve especially gotten good at counting down from three before I let go. It’s a difficult task. But I will soon not have a chance to play this role anymore, as I will soon be taking responsibility of manual controls for every flight. Though manning the remote control is pretty fun, the pictures of holding a controller are not quite as sweet as the pictures of releasing the plane off the launcher, and that’s really going to be the biggest loss. Because that’s really why I am doing this expedition, for the cool pictures.

In all seriousness, I am excited about the opportunity to take responsibility for this project. This will be the most independent role I have ever played in a research project, and so I feel a strong sense of ownership over it now, which boosts my motivation to do the work and get the data. It is surely going to be a challenge for me, but I am eager to take on this challenge and prove myself and my abilities to do a great job both to myself, and to the rest of the research team. And in the end, this will hopefully lead to an even stronger dissertation that I will write using this data.

DroneVille has a new mayor. And her name is Gina.

Fourth Week on the Polarstern

March 27 – April 2

DataHawk Progress

My first flight on the manual controls. Photo by Eric Brossier.

This week I did my first flights with the DataHawks as pilot in command on the manual controls. This means I was responsible for controlling the movements of the plane with the remote-control transmitter during launching and landing. For the rest of the flight, the plane was controlled by the autopilot, as usual.

The first day I flew on the manual controls, we had difficult conditions. Up until this day, we had only flown in winds less than 5 m/s, and as a result, very little drift of the ice. But on this day, the winds were around 10 m/s, and the ice was drifting at around 0.6 knots. This wind speed is just on the upper end of what we would feel comfortable flying in, and in the beginning we would not have risked it, but we had been playing it safe for a while, and the weather had been bad for a few days, we wanted to use this window of somewhat better weather to do some flights. Launching and landing the DataHawk, which gets blown around by the wind pretty easily, would be difficult, especially for me as a fairly beginner pilot. But I wanted to try it.

The launch was a bit rocky, taking off into a 10 m/s cross wind. But I maintained good control of the aircraft and took it to where I thought the autopilot circles would be located. When we turn on the plane and ground station, a local coordinate system is set based on the orientation of the plane. This is a system we developed to deal with the fact that each day, we are flying in a different location, as the ice is moving. Within this local coordinate system, we program a flight path, which is usually a series of circles, that the plane tracks throughout the flight. We program these circles to be centered about 100 m away from where the plane is when it is turned on. So when I flipped the remote control into autopilot, I expected the plane to start circling about 100 m away from me. But to me, it appeared to be much farther way than our previous flights. However, since I had not flown on the manual controls before, I was not sure what was normal.

Throughout the flight, the plane became harder and harder to see. I thought this was just because I had been staring at the sky for so long, not because the plane was actually getting farther and farther away. It also kept periodically losing connection with the antenna, which was a bit worrisome. After about 30 minutes in the air, it came time to land the plane. I knew it was going to be difficult because the plane was merely a dot in the sky at this point, but I could still tell its orientation, and I was determined to do it. So I flipped the controls into manual and began flying the plane towards us. When you’re flying the plane toward you, the controls are opposite of what you would expect, so it can be a bit difficult. But I had pretty good control on it. For a few moments at least. But then the plane flipped around. And then it went down. Behind a ridge. Really far away. Oh no. My first manual flight had ended in a crash landing. My heart sank. I was sure the plane must have hit one of the many ridges out that way and be severely damaged.

As the plane came down, I cut the throttle, and without hesitation, started walking in the direction that I saw it come down. But less than 100 m away, I was stopped by a large lead running west to east, to infinity in either direction. It had just recently frozen over, so it was not safe to cross. And the plane was on the other side. But we still needed to try to find it, so we went up to the bridge to try to look from there with the binoculars. For a while we could not find it, because we were searching about 100 m to the north of the launch site, where the plane should have been based on where we programmed the autopilot circles. But we forgot to consider one thing: the drift speed of the ice.

The location of the DataHawk “crash” landing.

You see, after we create the initial local coordinate system, this does not move in space throughout the flight. But we forgot that WE were moving, drifting south at about 0.6 knots. John determined that over the course of 45 minutes since powering on the plane, this meant that we had drifted about 400 m south of our initial location, making the center of the autopilot circles something like 500 m to the north of us. No wonder it looked so small and far away! Because it was! So this meant the plane was about 500 m away from me when I tried to land it. Plus, it was battling a 10 m/s cross wind. No wonder it crashed. But this information helped us to look for the plane in a more correct location.

So we shifted out search to 500 m north of the launch site, rather than 100m, and sure enough, there was the DataHawk, sitting there on a fairly flat section of snow, just beyond an intricate series of leads and ridges. In the picture above, Droneville, the launching site of the plane, is about 150 m to the right of the bow of the ship, to give some perspective about how far away the plane had gotten. As we looked at the plane through the binoculars, the plane actually appeared to be unharmed, but we could not be sure until we recovered it and inspected it. My heart lifted a little bit. Maybe I had not destroyed the plane after all.

Helicopter mechanic, Elena Turienzo, rescuing the lost DataHawk. Photo taken by Manuel Ernst.

The next step in the saga was to figure out how to get the DataHawk back, since there was no way to walk to that location, due to the large lead running infinitely in either direction outward from the bow and stern of the ship, cutting off our path there entirely. So we would either have to wait for the ice to freeze more… or we would have to use the helicopter. Suddenly I was excited. Would this mishap mean I would get to take my first flight in a helicopter on MOSAiC? My first flight in a helicopter ever? Luckily the helicopter was already operational for some other flights in the afternoon, so it would be super easy for them to quickly pop over to the DataHawk so I could grab it.

Unfortunately, this operation ended up going down without me. Since it was such a quick trip, the helicopter crew went and did it themselves. But though I didn’t get to go with, I was still very grateful they were so quickly able to rescue our plane. I did not like the thought of leaving our baby out there overnight in the cold, waiting for the lead ice to freeze more.

Helicopter mechanic, Elena Turienzo, bringing the lost DataHawk onboard the helicopter. Photo taken by Manuel Ernst.

I was anxiously awaiting the return of the helicopter with our plane, to see if there was in fact any damage. I was so sure the propeller at least would be broken, which would have been fine, as they are very easy to replace. But as they handed me the DataHawk upon return to the ship, I was shocked to see that there was NO visible damage to the plane, at least in terms of the physical infrastructure. Even the propeller was still intact! I could not believe my eyes.

But we couldn’t easily tell how the electronics had handled the crash. I opened up the main electronics bay to unplug the batteries and power down the plane and discovered that it was full of snow. So we took out the batteries and shook out the snow as much as we could and left the plane to melt and dry overnight. We wouldn’t be able to tell until the next day if there was truly no damage to the electronics. But to our delight, when we tested the plane’s controls the next morning, everything worked, good as new! I was flabbergasted. I suppose that, even so far away, I landed the plane just fine, or at least made the right corrections in the last moment when I realized it was going down, to prevent most damage. So I wouldn’t really call it a crash landing after all/ It was simply a fine landing, just not quite in the location intended!

I was so relieved that the plane was ok. This was not a situation we ever wanted to have occur, but things had been going too perfectly lately, something was bound to go wrong. That’s just how life seems to work. But John and I learned a lot from this incident. Mostly, that the drift speed of the ice makes a big difference on where the plane is in relation to the launch site. And to next time pay attention to this, and move the location of the autopilot circles closer to the landing site before taking over manual controls. Next time, we will not make these same mistakes.

John pulling the bungee to me, before launch. Photo taken by Eric Brossier.

The next day we had excellent weather for flying. Only 5 m/s winds at the surface, and good visibility. I was still a little bit rattled from my experience flying manual the day before, so I had John take the manual controls for the first flight we did. We have finally come up with a good distance to stretch the bungee, to launch the plane into the air with enough force. But you can see how much John is struggling to pull it to me; it is really freaking tight. This day, our drift speed was just about 0 knots, so our circle remained just overhead of us, where we wanted it. After watching how smoothly John’s flight had gone, I decided to give it another shot on the manual controls.

I was shaking with nerves as I took off. But the launch went so smoothly, and the plane was again circling just overhead where we wanted it during its autopilot circles. This was SUCH a difference from the day before, in terms of how well I could see the position of the plane throughout the flight. This is what it should always be like. When it came time to land the plane, I was confident I could execute it well. So I flipped the controls to manual, just as the plane was flying overhead of me, heading away toward Met City. I took it around a small curve and started to bring it back towards the landing strip in front of me. And I took it down to the surface, nice and easy. The landing was slightly farther away from me than would be ideal, 30 meters instead of 5, but hey, that’s still pretty good for a beginner such as myself. And a huge improvement from the 500 m distance of the day before!

I was so relieved. It seemed I hadn’t lost my skills. The previous day was an anomaly. And there were so many factors out of my control. More than 2 months after my last flights in Colorado, I had my first successful landing of MOSAiC. I was so glad that I got back on the horse the very next day, instead of retreating into fear, and letting it build out of proportion in my mind. Especially because, since that day, we have not had another chance to fly this week, due to a long sequence of bad weather days. But next time we get a chance to fly, I will be ready and confident in my skills on the manual controls.

Finding Peace in the Storms

A lone skidoo in the storm.

Much of this week has been stormy days, with wind speeds up to 20 m/s and low visibility, which makes flying the DataHawk impossible. I have spent most of my time working on our data processing code on the ship. But I am still taking opportunities to go outside and do some bear guarding when I can. On the above day, I bear guarded for my friend Amy, as she took some snow measurements during a period of 15 m/s winds.

This little excursion was so wonderful. It was so quiet out there. It is difficult to find moments of peace on this ship with so many people around and so many hectic things going on, but for 3 hours that afternoon, it was quiet except for the sound of the wind. I stood gazing out at the landscape, scanning for bears, but also watching as the snow blew so softly over the surface, appreciating every moment of serenity. Peace like this can be rare to capture, so I cherish it all the more.

Ice Stability

In my last blog post, I mentioned that we were considering moving the ship to another location on the floe. The lead running beneath the ship was opening and closing so much that the Polarstern was constantly losing connection with the floe, and we were losing anchors and anchor lines. So it was determined that, in order for logistical safety, and for the future of the science, we would need to move the ship. This plan was set in place to occur this past week. But when the day came around, the lead finally decided to close, and was creating too much pressure on the ship, that it would be dangerous to try to move it. So we decided to stay where we are, after all. For now, anyway.

Mummy chair, used to get us back on board when the Polarstern drifted away from the floe. Photo taken by Eric Brossier.

There has still been some movement of this lead, though, since the decision to stay was made. One day, while we were out on the ice, the ship moved away from the ice edge enough that the gangway couldn’t touch down in a safe location, so we had to be lifted back onto the ship in the mummy chair. So we are still far from stable. Just because the ice stops shifting for one day, does not mean it will not open right back up the next day. So we need to stay alert, and not ever assume we are in a stable state.

Plans to Return Home

Frost flowers on a lead during sunrise. Photo taken by Markus Frey.

Though we were treated to more lovely frost flowers on the leads this week, finding the frost flowers in the situation regarding our return has become more difficult for me. Since I did not have as many opportunities to go out and do my work on the ice this week, due to the stormy conditions, I had a hard time distracting myself from the stress that comes with the uncertainty of our return home, or the future of MOSAiC.

Things change every day. In my last post, I wrote that definitively, the Oden was our one solid plan to get home. Though this would not bring us home until the end of June, this was still one concrete plan that we had. Yes, it would get us home much later than expected, but at least it would get us home. And it might be able to replace us with the next group of scientists. But we found out this week that the Oden is no longer available due to complications surrounding the coronavirus. Additional options to use other ships for this exchange are now in consideration, but I have a hard time believing that any of these ideas will pan out, under corona conditions. And on top of that, I don’t see realistically how the new crew of scientists could gather safely in the near future to deploy on a resupply ship, if they find a ship that will do it.

The only options being considered to get us home that can for sure happen at this point involve us sailing back to Germany on the Polarstern, and either ending MOSAiC permanently, or redeploying after picking up the next crew of scientists, if they are able to gather in Germany. Hopefully it won’t come to this, but in this moment, this seems the only feasible option to me.

Polarstern after drifting south of 85 °N.

Another complication in this whole scenario is our rapid drift speed. We have been travelling south at speeds as fast as 0.7 knots at times. On the morning of April 2, we crossed over the 85 °N latitude line, effectively leaving what is defined as the “central Arctic.” We did not expect to be at this point until around August, according to the predicted drift route made at the beginning of the expedition. So this is just another thing to be considered when thinking about the future of MOSAiC. At this rate, we could reach the ice edge in a month. So in order to continue MOSAiC for the rest of the year, as intended, we would likely need to re-setup the ice camp farther north. This would be a huge undertaking.

Looking Forward

I usually include this section of my blog to talk about what I think the next week will look like. But at this point, everything is so uncertain, I don’t know how to make such a prediction. John and I will continue to fly whenever the weather permits, to collect as much data as we can until a plan to get us home is determined and initiated. This may mean a few more weeks of work, or a few more months. But right now, I am taking life 10 seconds at a time. And then another 10 seconds. And then another. And soon enough, a day passes. And then a week. And at some point, the future may become clear. But in the meantime, I am leaning on my friends here and back home to support me through this time, and I give my support in return. This is really all we can do in these times of corona. And in the end, we will be ok.

In other news, we now have 24 hours of sun. Polar day, here we are!

Third Week on the Polarstern

Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

Stability of the MOSAiC Floe

Open lead in the sunrise. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

The MOSAiC floe has continued to be pretty dynamic, though the rate at which new leads are opening has perhaps decreased a bit this past week, mostly due to a stretch of good weather and calm winds. Instead, the leads that have already formed are still a bit mobile, opening and closing. In the picture above, one of the cracks had opened a bit, and you can see steam rising off of the open water. Since the ocean water is “warm” compared to the air, there is a delicate mist above any open cracks. Sometimes you can see this steam from a distance, so you know there must be an open crack below.

Ridge separating Met City from the Polarstern.

The big lead that had opened up between Met City and the Polarstern, that I described in my last post, has now turned into a ridge. The ridge grew slowly, but little by little built up to about 6 meters tall, making it extremely difficult to get to Met City. Above is a view of the Polarstern from the Met City side of the ridge, as it was growing. Since that picture was taken, the ridge probably doubled in height. This situation, with the really tall ridge, along with the fact that the cracks are still pretty active in this area, has prevented us from reconnecting power to Met City, so it has been running on generators for almost 2 weeks now. Unfortunately, not all instruments can function on the generator, so this gap in power connectivity has been pretty detrimental to some measurements.

A group of scientists hopping over a crack to get to Met City.

Luckily, DroneVille has still remained on the main floe, not disconnected from the Polarstern by any cracks, large or small. But I try to provide my support to other members of the atmosphere team who rely on Met City for their scientific projects. In the picture above, I am watching this crack to make sure the ice does not move apart, so some people can go to Met City for a little while and safely return.

Watching this crack was a really neat, but nerve-racking experience. As I stood there, I could hear the ice floes on either side of the crack shearing against each other, sounding like styrofoam rubbing together. And I could see the ice moving as well, though luckily the two sides were moving horizontally alongside each other, not spreading apart. It was my job to call the guys going to Met City on the VHF radio if the ice was moving too much, so this was a lot of pressure on me to make a decision about when it was becoming unsafe. Already, it was a risk for them to cross, because they had to jump over the crack, and we didn’t want the conditions to worsen.

This small excursion was almost a success, except that they had to cross yet another crack, which I couldn’t see from where I was, to get to Met City. Unfortunately, one person slipped just enough to get her foot wet in the lead. This was scary to watch, because as she went down, she fell behind a small ridge, and I could not see her, so I thought she had fallen all the way in. Luckily, she quickly stood back up, and she and the rest of the group returned to where I was, making it safely back across all the cracks. What a relief!

The gangway hanging over a large lead.

The most active lead in our vicinity is unfortunately the one that crosses beneath the Polarstern. It seems that this lead is part of a separation between 3 large floes around us, and whenever these floes move in relation to each other, the ship is pushed around in return. One night, the ship was completely separated from the MOSAiC floe. Around 10pm, we could feel that the main engines of the ship had been turned on. I went up to the bridge to see what was going on, only to discover that the Polarstern had been pulled away from the ice, and the gangway was hanging over a large lead, as you can see in the picture above. I watched as some crew members rushed to disconnect the main power cables from the ship to the floe, to prevent these from snapping under pressure. I think at this point, all anchor lines were disconnected from the floe, and we were only staying alongside the MOSAiC floe because the engines were working to keep up there. Otherwise, we would have drifted away.

I thought this was the end, that we could not recover from this disconnection. But to my surprise and joy, when I woke up the next morning, the ship had been reattached to the floe with a few anchor lines, and the gangway was back over the ice. I would like to say this was the first and last time that this problem occurred, but ever since this first incident, the Polarstern has been struggling to stay alongside the MOSAiC floe, and is often shifted significantly forward and backwards along the ice edge, and anchor lines and power to the floe are constantly needing to be disconnected and reconnected. This is causing a lot of disruption to the science. Fortunately, my project is relatively unaffected, as long as this does not prevent us from going out onto the ice from the ship. But many other projects are suffering from the lack of consistent power, and thus, we are now discussing the possibility of starting the main engines and driving the Polarstern to a different part of the floe.

Frost flowers formed on newly frozen leads around the ship. Left image taken by Michael Gutsche; right image taken by Christian Rohleder.

Even though the open leads cause much disruption to most scientific activities, they also allow us to observe something unique and beautiful: frost flowers. These form on top of newly frozen open water. This new ice forms quickly because of the low air temperatures, and in the process of transporting  halocarbons from the water to the atmosphere, due to brine expulsion, frost flowers form. To be honest, I don’t really know what that last sentence means, but all I know is that these frost flowers are pretty incredible, and I feel lucky to see them up close. Just goes to show that things in life are not only simply positive or negative. Yes, the leads may threaten our science and the stability of the ship, but they also allow for these delicate flowers to form. Throughout the many challenges we face every day on MOSAiC, I am always searching for the frost flower of the situation. The reason to appreciate what is happening, even if on the surface it may look like a disaster.

Drone image of the Polarstern and all the surrounding cracks. Photo taken by Manuel Ernst.

In this drone image of the MOSAiC floe, you can see just how broken up it is. If you look closely toward the left side of the picture, you can see our little orange DroneVille tent, hanging in there, somehow still unaffected by cracks, allowing us to continue working despite the dynamic ice around us.

First DataHawk Flights

DataHawk flying off the launcher during our first attempted flight.

This past week, John and I finally had our big break. We were blessed with a stretch of good weather days, and luckily this time, no crucial reconnaissance operations got in our way, and no leads threatened our flying space. This meant we could use this time to focus on our own project and make progress towards getting a plane in the air!

The day we intended to launch a DataHawk for the first time, we unfortunately ran into several issues. As we were walking through all of the pre-flight calibrations and control checks, when it came time to test the throttle on the autopilot, we found that the throttle was ramping up and down instead of staying at full, when we told it to be at full. This came as quite a surprise, because we had not encountered this problem before, the other times we had run through the pre-flight process outside. We had two planes out there with us this day, and this same issue was happening for both. Unfortunately, this meant we couldn’t launch the planes in auto after all, since they would not be safe to fly with the throttle wavering like that. We were pretty disappointed, because we had so been looking forward to getting a plane in the air this day, after all of the build-up.

So we decided we would do a quick manual flight instead, just to get a plane in the air. I put the plane on the launcher, John on the controls, filled with excitement as I counted down, three-two-one-go, and released the plane off the bungee to be pulled into the air. And the plane flew! For about 2 seconds. Then it came to an abrupt landing about 10 meters in front of the launcher. I burst into laughter. Of course it still didn’t work! But this time, it wasn’t a problem with the plane, but rather, the bungee cord. Even though the bungee was extremely tight when we first stretched it out, as we left the bungee stretched during our pre-flight routine, it had become somewhat frozen in its stretched position, unable to recoil with the force we are used to it having.

The film crew interviewing John after our first attempted launch.

Luckily, we had the German documentary film crew with us to capture this failure! I am kidding of course about that choice of words. Though this first day of attempted flights did not go according to plan, I would not at all call it a failure. In fact, it was a great success in my mind because we learned what the problems were that we needed to fix, so that we could solve them, and the next time we would try to fly, it would actually work.

Launching the DataHawk during our first successful flight.

And that’s exactly what we did! We contacted the DataHawk engineer back at CU Boulder about the throttle problems we were having, and he suggested a line of code that could be removed from the plane’s autopilot programming that might fix the problem. So John and I spent the next day in the lab trying to recreate the throttle problem so that we could make the code change and see if the problem was solved. To our confusion and frustration, we were unable to recreate the problem during our testing the next day. We did not understand why the problem was not occurring now, since all the conditions were the same as the day before. We ended the day a bit unsatisfied.

The next day, we wanted to attempt some more flights, but weren’t convinced we wouldn’t have the throttle problem again when we got back out to DroneVille, and once again be unable to fly. So we decided to implement the code change on one of the two planes we would take out, so that we might at least have one functioning plane. This time, when we tested the plane controls on the deck of the ship before going out on the ice, to our again confusion and this time relief, the throttle problem occurred again. So we made the code change, tested the plane again, and the throttle worked perfectly! It seemed that perhaps we had found the fix! We tested the other plane, and it also had the throttle problem initially, but not after the code update! We were glad to have seemingly fixed the problem, though we are not 100% convinced it wasn’t just a coincidence that the planes worked again, since they had also worked fine the day before, without the code change.

Nonetheless, we decided it was time to take them back out to the launcher for another attempt at our first flights. We had a lot of spectators watching us, waiting for this attempt to be successful. And we were again joined by the film crew. Sadly, and a little bit embarrassingly, The first attempt at a launch this day was the same result as the last attempt: the plane fell flat about 10 meters in front of the launcher. This time, the bungee wasn’t stretched far enough. But after a few adjustments to the positioning of the launcher, we found something that worked. We had to put the launcher far enough back that it took the combined strength of both John and I to pull the bungee all the way there, and we needed to stretch the bungee right before we were ready to launch the plane, and even then, there is just barely enough force to get the plane into the air.

DataHawk flying above Met City. Photo taken by John Cassano.

But after all this trouble shooting, we were finally able to get the plane in the air! The first “real” flight we did ended up being a manual flight, because after all the time spent fiddling around with the launcher, the batteries were getting low and we didn’t want to run through the whole pre-flight routine again on this set of batteries. This was a pretty quick flight. Soon after launch, John said that he wasn’t getting enough power from the throttle due to the low batteries, but the plane was on its way to fly across the lead in front of Met City, so he had to take it in for an emergency landing. He ended up bringing the plane down about 2 feet before a small ridge, followed by an open lead. Yikes! That could have ended in a lost or broken plane, but instead it came down undamaged and safe!

The next flight we did, we were finally able to get it in the air fast enough to have plenty of battery left, so we could actually flip it into autopilot mode, and let it follow the pre-programed flight path we had set. To my delight, the plane functioned perfectly in this mode, tracking the pre-set circles closely, and responding well to the wind conditions, adjusting itself to stay on track. In the picture above, you can see the DataHawk flying in autopilot above Met City. You can also see just how big that ridge is!

John and I, very proud after an afternoon of successful DataHawk flights. Photo from John Cassano.

We had one day yet to be able to fly during this stretch of good weather. In the morning of that day, John and I did some work looking into the data we had gotten from the previous day’s flights to make sure nothing was going horrible wrong there. We found that everything looked pretty good, aside from needing to replace some sensors on one of the planes. Then, in the afternoon we were able to go outside for a few more flights!

At this point, John and I had gotten pretty fast with the pre-flight routine, and so for the two flights we did, we were able to get the plane in the air less than 10 minutes after plugging in the batteries. This meant there was still plenty of battery left to do a good long flight. This time, we told the planes to follow the pre-programmed profiling pattern and were able to take them each up to 1000 m, the max height we intend to fly, and keep the plane in the air for about 30 minutes. I was surprised how well the plane still did this high up.

I am so pleased with what we accomplished in this stretch of days. We were able to fix what I hope will be the last big set of problems and establish a routine that we can carry out whenever the weather is favorable. Over two months after leaving the US for Tromsø, it is also such a relief to start getting some data.

Delayed Departure

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that the entire world seems to have been shut down, we are now facing a tough reality of the fact that we are going to be stuck on the Polarstern for quite a bit longer than we had originally intended. There are many things about the plan for the rest of MOSAiC that are changing. First, instead of there being separate legs 4, 5, and 6 that were to follow after us, they are combining these groups into just two legs, that will span the rest of the expedition.

As of now, our handover with the next group is planned as such: the Oden will leave port on May 20, just about a week and a half sooner than it was originally planned to leave to carry out the handover between legs 4 and 5. This means that we on leg 3 are basically staying on the Polarstern for almost all of an additional leg of the expedition. The Oden will reach us in the beginning of June, and then we will sail back to port, arriving at the end of June. Only then will I be able to return back to the US. By this point, I will have missed my summer plans to lead a 45-day sea kayaking trip in Alaska.

This all is a tough pill to swallow. At this time, I was expecting to be home in less than two weeks. Now it seems it will be closer to 2.5 months, making my time on this expedition double what it was supposed to be. Given the circumstances though, I am actually doing quite well. Knowing there is nothing I can do to change the situation is in some way a relief, because I have just lost all expectation of what the next weeks and months will bring, and with no expectation comes no attachment and no disappointment.

I am just riding the wave of the universe, finding the frost flowers of the situation. Yes, I am stuck on an ice breaker drifting in the central Arctic, with no control over my return home, but at least I am missing the chaos of the rest of the world. And yes, I miss my friends and family so much, but at least I have a wonderful group of friends, even family one might say, here on this ship. And yes, I long for the warm sun and the mountains of Colorado, but the sea ice landscape takes my breath away every day and the cold air energizes me. So maybe I have all the reason in the world to feel helpless and scared and, but I also have all the reason in the world to be exhilarated and content. I am going to be ok.

Activities on Board

Wine and Cheese Wednesday with our homemade cribbage board.

As it starts to sink in that we will really be here for such a longer time than expected, we have started to get more creative with ways to have fun and stay entertained. Some of us have started a Wine and Cheese Wednesday tradition. This usually involves a game of cribbage on our homemade board.

Toga party at the Zillertal.

We have also started to implement theme parties into our bar nights. My friend Steven and I organized a Toga Party on the Saturday Zillertal, and we bartended the event. The people who participated made togas out of bed sheets and shower curtains. The best part was to see what people came up with as a headband. Personally, I used my ice picks. That way, not only could I be looking cool for the party, but I would also be prepared if, somehow, I fell into a lead. Throughout the night, Steven and I got a lot of questions from the non-Americans about the origin of the toga party, and why it was a tradition for us. We thought it was pretty funny we were asked this question so many times, but our only response was that it is a college frat party tradition. I guess toga parties aren’t really a thing outside of the US.

Grilling on the deck during the “Welcome Back Sun” BBQ.

Another fun event this past week was the “Welcome Back Sun” BBQ. Even though the sun technically came back a while ago, just at the end of this week is when we finally had a chance for this party. For the meal, we got to choose whatever meat we wanted, and cook it ourselves on the grills out on the deck. I accidentally touched my tongue to my fork while I was outside cooking. It seemed so casual what we were doing, I nearly forgot that it was well below freezing. But that hurt pretty bad, so then I remembered. After the dinner portion of the party, the fun extended into the wee (or not so wee) hours of the morning. Good thing we were given the next morning off of work to recover!

Looking Forward

The coolest picture I have ever been a part of. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

Now that we have accomplished a few flights, John and I are ready to get after it as much as we can. Whenever there is a weather window, we will take that opportunity to fly. And whenever there is a storm, we will process the data back on the ship, and start creating some data files that are ready to be shared with the general public, for anyone’s use.

So far for all of our flights, I have been controlling the autopilot aspect of the flights from the ground station laptop, and John has been on the remote control to launch and land the plane. I am nervous for us to swap roles, since I only passed my flying check two days before I left for Tromsø, and now it has been over two months since I have flown, but I decided that next time we fly, I will take the manual controls. I will fly a drone in the Arctic and I will do it well. And I will be so happy.

Second Week on the Polarstern

Drone image of the Polarstern by Manuel Ernst.

The Saga of the Met City Crack

Met City on March 11 (left) vs. on March 14 (right); view from the bridge of Polarstern.

I left off my last blog post talking about the lead that had opened up between the Polarstern and Met City. I was hopeful that within a few days, the lead would close or freeze enough to allow us to cross to Met City and continue our work, but this was not the case. Unfortunately, another lead opened up to the left of Met City (when viewing it from the ship) on March 14 and combined with the original lead that opened on March 11, separating the majority of Met City from the main MOSAiC ice floe. Met City was then left on its own peninsula, to drift away from us towards Greenland.

You can see just how much Met City drifted away in these few days, by noticing that, in the picture above, Met City was to the left of the Noodle (the tall 30 meter tower toward the right of the left image) on March 11, but was to the right of the Noodle on March 14. You can also see that, while in the left image, the orange power line runs from the ship directly toward Met City, in the right image, the power line is far to the left of Met City. Watching this drift occur really put in perspective for me just how fast the ice can change. And unfortunately, these would not be the last leads to form around Met City, threatening its survival. But I will get back to that later.

The Return of the Sun

My first view of the sun on March 14.

The sun technically rose above the horizon for the first time on March 12, but the clouds were too thick for us to see it, as we had been in the middle of a storm system for quite some days. It was not until March 14 that the storm cleared enough for a few hours in the morning to allow us to see the sun for the first time. I was very lucky to be out on the ice, bear guarding for somebody moving some cables away from the lead at Met City.

The sun on March 18, shining across the floe.

Before the sun came up, the thought hadn’t even entered my mind that I missed the sun. In the days leading up to the first sunrise, I kind of didn’t want it to come back. There was some sort of comfort in the world without the sun that I had become used to. The constant blanket of twilight provided a sense of serenity. Always peaceful. Always beautiful.

But when I laid my eyes on that first sun, I was flooded with joy. After two months of it hiding behind the horizon, it showed its face again, and I realized I did miss it. I was filled with a new energy from that point. Rejuvenated to continue this journey, despite the many challenges we face every day. From that point forward, I was filled with a new sense of excitement about each day, always looking forward to going outside, to see how the angle and impact of the sun is changing each day. And when the sky is clear, these views are breathtaking.

Drone image of a sunrise on the horizon, beyond the Polarstern. Photo taken by Manuel Ernst.

Days on this expedition can be frustrating at times, when things don’t go according to plan. When the ice breaks up in an inconvenient place. When a storm shields the sun for days. But when the sky clears, and I look out at the beauty around me, I forget all about these frustrations. I do not even care anymore. Because I am in the most beautiful place on earth (or at least that I have ever been), and every day is a new experience, with something to be learned. And this gives me the motivation to keep pushing through these challenges to get to the next day.

The Fall of NoodleVille

The removal of the 30-meter tower, to protect it from ridging.

When the big lead opened up between Met City and the Polarstern, it cut off the Noodle, and some other small instrumentation, from the rest of Met City. This created a little suburb of Met City, which we called NoodleVille. In the days following the lead event, the ice started to move back together, forming some ridges along the edges of the lead. The force behind a ridging event is pretty massive and has the power to crush things on the ice, especially delicate instrumentation. And this ridging was getting dangerously close to swallowing some of the guy lines that hold the Noodle up. So it was decided that we would take the Noodle down.

It was a big decision to choose to take the Noodle down, and this wouldn’t have been decided unless absolutely crucial, since it takes about 8 hours to set it back up. Which we will have to do eventually, when we decide where to move it to. Luckily, the take-down was not quite as time consuming, though it did take a whole afternoon. The Noodle is basically a stack of a series of two-meter-long segments, and through a collection of winches, we lowered these segments down through the center of the stabilizing tripod, one at a time. Though it was pretty tedious work, and I was struggling to stay warm, we were treated to a stunning sun, peaking above the horizon the whole time we worked, casting its golden glow across the sky and the ice, motivating me to push through my discomfort to get the job done.

By the end of the afternoon, the task was complete. NoodleVille had fallen. But once we find a stable place to resurrect the tower, NoodleVille will rise again.

The Rise of DroneVille

Pitching the Arctic Oven at DroneVille.

With the fall of NoodleVille, there was room for a new reign. After the lead opened up in front of Met City, and prevented regular power from getting there, as well as made walking there quite difficult, it no longer made sense for us to base our flights out of the Met Hut. So we had to find a new home base. We had shipped this Arctic Oven tent to the Polarstern, along with all of our cargo, with the initial intension to run our ground station out of it, by connecting a power cable from the power hub to our power box inside the tent to charge our batteries and ground station laptop. But this tent is a big pain in the neck to set up, so John and I were pretty excited when we discovered we would be able to work out of the Met Hut instead. But all of a sudden this was no longer feasible, and we had to go with the backup plan: pitching the Arctic Oven.

Setting up the tent proved to in fact be just as tedious, or perhaps even more, than we had thought. The most difficult part of the whole thing was digging through the snow to the ice surface, creating a pit the dimensions of the tent itself, plus some extra room on the sides. This meant digging a hole about 10 ft x 10 ft, and nearly a meter deep. The task was extremely tiring and took over an hour. And that was only the first step. We had to then pitch the tent, which proved pretty difficult in nearly 13 m/s winds. But once we were able to get a few ice stakes in, the task became much easier.

Digging through the snow to secure the guy lines with ice stakes. Photo taken by Julia Schmale.

The last step in the process was to put on the tent fly, and stake all of the guy lines into the ice to make the structure as secure as possible, so it could withstand the high winds it would be exposed to throughout the coming weeks. We had to dig additional holes in the snow for the ice stakes from the guy lines to go. I was only able to get one of the guy lines installed before we decided everyone was too tired and cold to function much longer, so we’d better go back to the ship. By this point, my arms felt like noodles and I was barely even able to zip the tent door, so it was a good call. So we quickly staked down the tent fly door, and headed inside, after a hard day’s work.

The completed Arctic Oven at DroneVille.

The next morning, we returned to the site to finish staking all the guy lines, and to secure the fly door a bit better. We wanted to make sure everything was very secure before the next storm was predicted to roll in the next day. As we completed the set-up of the Arctic Oven, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise on the horizon. We felt very satisfied when the job was done. The new establishment would be called DroneVille.

Giant lead behind DroneVille, making it beachfront property.

Throughout the beginning of the week, the lead to the east of Met City, which you can see was pretty small in the second picture in this blog post, grew much much wider. The proximity of such dynamic ice posed a threat to our new town, DroneVille, but for the time being, we were still safe. But at any moment, we knew new cracks could form from the giant lead, and nothing would stop one from running right into our tent. John and I jokingly said we’d give it three days until a crack would swallow our tent. And we were not that far off about what happened next.

Trouble in Paradise

Surveying of the crack that opened up behind DroneVille.

Like clockwork, three days later, a crack formed right behind the DroneVille tent. John and I ventured out to assess the damage. It is difficult to see the crack in the picture above, due to the low visibility that day, but it is the dark line running horizontally across the scene, a few meters beyond the tent. Luckily, we determined that the tent was still a safe distance away from the crack, and we would not need to take it down. However, the crack separated DroneVille from the new power system that was set up on the Polarstern side of the Met City lead, when Met City started to float away. So our task then was to rescue the power cables that ran across the crack, and bring them back to the near side.

Crossing the crack behind DroneVille, to recover the power cables.

The first challenge regarding this task was to get across the lead. We were unable to find any closures in the crack small enough to walk over, so our best option was this narrow part of the crack, only a meter or two wide, where we could bridge the gap with a Nansen sled, and cross over to the other side. A few members of our team went across, while I stayed behind to pull the power cables onto the close side of the crack, once they were disconnected from the power station on the other side.

Recovery of data cable across the crack behind DroneVille.

In the picture above, you can see a bit better what this crack looked like. You can also see one of the orange power cables running across it, that we had to pull to the near side of the crack. Additionally, we needed to pull a data cable across the crack, which is a bit more delicate, and needed to be protected from the water. So we threw a throw rope across the lead, attached it to a sled, and pulled the data cable plus its accessories to the near side of the crack.

Me collapsed onto the snow, after dragging heavy power cable across the crack.

Pulling the power cables, especially this heavy orange one, across the lead, was a hard work. On this day, I had worn the inner liner of my FXR suit, which I normally do not wear, as it is extremely warm. But I thought if I would be working next to a lead, it would be good to wear in case I fell in. But instead, I ended up doing some intense manual labor, and soon regretted wearing this liner because I felt like I was in my own personal sauna inside my FXR suit. I wasn’t in the position to shed any layers, so when the job was done, I collapsed into the snow, letting myself rest for a moment and cool down as much as I could.

Even though my days on the ice do not always go to plan, and I may end up doing an activity that is different than what I thought I would be doing that day, I always feel very satisfied by whatever I accomplish. Whether that is rescuing instrumentation, keeping people safe from bears, or dragging power cables across a lead. Soon, I hope I will feel this same accomplishment after we finally get a drone in the air.

Coronavirus Impacts

I hate that this is a subject I need to discuss in my blog, as we are so far outside the reach of the coronavirus itself, but unfortunately, even locked in the sea ice of the central arctic ocean we are still experiencing indirect effects, and I am sure you are wondering what these effects are.

I want to make this brief, since COVID-19 is already the only thing anyone seems to talk about these days, and you don’t need to read about it here too. So long story short, due to travel restrictions, especially the ban of foreigners entering Norway, the group of scientists (leg 4) that was planned to replace us on the Polarstern in the first week of April cannot get to Norway, which is where they are supposed to fly out of to get to the Polarstern. And the group of scientists with me here cannot easily leave the Polarstern until our replacements arrive, without throwing off the schedule of the whole transition. Therefore, leg 3 is being extended past its original end date until further notice. So for the time being, I am prepared to be on the ship for longer than expected.

Though it is somewhat difficult to wrap my mind around all this uncertainty, I am doing my best to focus on my work, and be as productive as I can towards our scientific goals. We will not let COVID-19 diminish the impact of MOSAiC on our increased understanding of the changing Arctic climate system, which is the whole reason we are here. We will not forget this. I am also focusing on appreciating what an incredible and unique place I am in, and I am fueling my gratitude that, though there are many reasons I would like to be home to wait out this pandemic, if I had to be stuck anywhere, I am glad it is here.  

Looking Forward

New headshot.

The above picture is a perfect representation of who I am on this journey. A woman of the Arctic, braving the cold every day for the future of this planet, and for the thrill of the adventure. Even though only a sliver of my face shows between my hat and balaclava, you can see it in my eyes that I am at peace here, becoming one with the elements. Letting the challenges that working on the ice brings only fuel my fire to overcome them.

Each day, John and I continue to work towards being flight operational, and though it feels like every time we talk one step forward, we take four steps back, we continue to do our best to progress towards finally getting our drones in the air. We have come to expect new challenges every day, so we are prepared to react, and move past them as quickly as we can. Next week will be our week. Next week, we will fly.

First Week on the Polarstern

Goodbye Dranitsyn

View of where the Polarstern (right) and Dranitsyn (left) were parked during the handover. Photo taken from a time lapse made by the UFA film crew. Credit goes to Dieter Stürmer and Manuel Ernst.

On the morning of March 6, the Dranitsyn started its engines again, broke out of its position lodged in the ice, and began its journey south. The Makarov is on its way to meet the Dranitsyn at 85 °N where Dranitsyn will be refueled before returning to Tromsø. This plan is panning out well so far. I am so grateful, because this solution had allowed us to make it to the Polarstern. And it is good to know that leg 2 will make it home soon.

Once the Dranitsyn sailed away, we were finally alone out here, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, which is now Greenland. And a new way of life began.

Life on the Polarstern

My room on the Polarstern.

Life on the Polarstern is much busier than it was on the Dranitsyn, which I suppose is not surprising. After a good night’s rest in the room you see above, I am ready for a jam-packed day. I spend my time each day working on my own research project or helping other groups if I have some time to spare. Sometimes, I take an hour-long shift on the bridge, watching for polar bears using the binoculars. They have scientists volunteering to do this for hour-long shifts throughout the whole day, whenever anybody is out working on the ice.

My work is broken up by the meals, which are served at 7:30am, 11:30am, and 5:30pm. The meals are each an hour long, and we have to filter through the galley, as it is not large enough to accommodate all the scientists at once. This is something different to adapt to, but we have all made a routine of when we each go to eat, and it works out pretty well. The food has continued to impress me, and I am always looking forward to what interesting meal we will have next. They serve potatoes for almost every single lunch and dinner, I am living the dream.

Every Thursday and Sunday, we have ice cream for dessert with lunch.

There are many ways to keep up morale on this ship throughout the week. Every Thursday and Sunday, ice cream is served as the dessert with lunch. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night, we have “Zillertal,” also known as bar night, so long as somebody volunteers to bartend. I have continued to enjoy the gym whenever I have time in the day and am appreciating how many nice pieces of equipment they have to use. At the end of the day, I am always exhausted, but in the best way, because it is well deserved.

DataHawk Progress

John and I showing some colleagues how our DataHawk work. Photo taken by Julia Schmale.

We have made a lot of progress with getting the DataHawks ready to fly! After we had a few built, the next step was to practice running through our ground station flight preparation routine outside, to make sure everything was going smoothly. This includes getting a GPS lock, loading a flight plan, calibrating the aircraft, making sure the meteorological sensors are reading data, and testing the aircraft controls. This whole process usually takes about ten minutes, and then the plane is ready to be launched.

We first tested out this routine in the logistics area, right outside of the ship. We were pleased that we got a GPS lock very quickly, which was our biggest concern, and we were not positive we would be able to get it, due to our high latitude. And as we ran through the rest of the routine, everything important did work as we had hoped. However, we faced an unexpected issue: the laptop we were using started to get very sluggish in the cold, and it was near impossible to track where the mouse was on the screen, making running the ground station operations extremely difficult and slow. We also realized we would not be able to operate the computer in glove liners, or our hands would freeze, but it was difficult to use the mouse in thicker gloves. So while the flight preparation did work, it was extremely uncomfortable, and a bit disconcerting just how cold our hands got. The thought of having to do this several times per day seemed daunting, and near impossible. Our research goals we made going into this expedition might not be feasible.

But we had an idea for a solution. What if we ran through the ground station flight preparation routine inside of the Met Hut (which is a heated shack out at Met City, next to our launching area) and did not move the laptop or plane outside until we were ready to launch. We were not sure if this would work, since we did not know if the GPS lock or magnetometer calibration would work inside. But we tried it out, and to our delight, it worked! The Met Hut, though made of fairly thin wooden walls, is heated to around 68 °F, so we were very comfortable during the process, and the laptop staid warm. We hope the other devices in the Hut do not mess up the magnetometer calibration, but it did not appear so, though this is something we need to test a bit further. But overall, this was such good news to discover! Our research goals again seem feasible!

DataHawk on its launcher at Met City

After setting up our workstation in the Met Hut, the last step before we would be ready to fly was to set up the launcher. The launcher, seen above, is made out of tent poles and children’s ski poles, and only takes a few minutes to set up each day. The only difficult part about it, is that the launcher needs to be secured to the ice, so for that, we needed to install an ice pick. That meant digging through the snow to get to the ice surface, and the snow was about a half meter thick. We then installed another ice pick about 30 meters away in the direction we will be launching the plane. From that one, we will stretch a bungee cord toward the launcher, which attaches to the plane on the launcher, and catapults the plane forward when released. It was very satisfying to have this task complete, and we were treated to a beautifully warm (it was only -35 °C ambient and -45 °C which chill), clear morning while we did it.

Polar Bear Guarding

Polar bear guard on duty outside of the Met Hut at Met City.

Whenever we do any work out on the ice, we need to have a polar bear guard with us, whose only job is to scan the surroundings for polar bears. The bear guards are equipped with flare guns (and 8 flares), as well as a rifle (and 10 bullets). Though bear guarding is one of the main jobs of the logistics team members, most of the scientists also took a rifle training course before coming on MOSAiC, so that we could help out bear guarding if we have any free time and/or all the logistics team members are busy with other tasks. Though I really enjoyed the rifle training course I took in Colorado, I figured I would never actually want to be a bear guard out here. The thought of that much responsibility of peoples’ lives kind of freaked me out. But once I got out here, and got to know the professional bear guards, I learned they are all not much different than myself. Many of them are guides for tourist expeditions in the Arctic, and throughout all of their combined years of this work, none have ever had to shoot a polar bear with a rifle; they pretty much always go away simply from the use of a flare. Learning this, I was given new confidence in my potential to be a good bear guard and was excited by the thought of it.

Me polar bear guarding for a snow sampling team.

And as it turns out, I actually love bear guarding. Oftentimes, the weather is not favorable for us to fly our drones, but is still ok for some other teams to conduct their science on the ice, so being a bear guard gives me an opportunity to get off the ship and enjoy the Arctic environment, while also making myself useful to others. So I volunteer for this as much as I can. On the day the above photo was taken, I was bear guarding for a few people out taking snow samples. It was -40 °C ambient outside, with -60 °C wind chill and 13 m/s winds. So it is maybe not surprising that we were called back to the ship as soon as we got out to the sampling site, due to low visibility and dangerously cold temperatures. It was definitely a good call, but I was glad to have gotten outside for a little while anyway.

Crack City

Crack running to the Polarstern from the north on March 5. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder.

As soon as we moved to the Polarstern, and began our work on the ice, we started to notice small cracks here and there in the ice. Above, you can see one we observed the day before the Dranitsyn left. This started to give us a sense of how dynamic the ice is up here. In any given moment, it might look like a stagnant sheet of ice that doesn’t move. You might even convince yourself there is solid ground beneath. But in reality, small cracks open up pretty frequently. They are usually fairly thin, and they close up quickly. After a few days of seeing a few cracks here and there, but none that would cause any harm to the personnel or equipment on the ice, I started to feel confident in the floe, that it would not shift too much in the course of the leg. But I was wrong.

Lead opening up in the logistics area, on the starboard side of the ship, on March 11.

On March 11, a small crack appeared cutting across the Polarstern, through the north side of the logistics area on the starboard side, and through the south side of the emergency runway on the port side. Or at least it started out small. The German documentary film crew asked me to bear guard for them while they went out on the ice to take some drone footage of the crack. So I geared up and headed to the gangway. When I got there, the crack was maybe a meter wide. But as I stood there waiting for the film crew to be ready to go on the ice, for only about ten minutes, the crack tripled in width. And it continued growing. The above picture was taken still towards the beginning of the spread, and by the time the lead stopped forming, it was probably close to six meters wide in parts.

As I was standing there on the gangway, the logistics person on the bridge announced over the VHF radio for everybody on the ice to return to the ship. With the crack opening wider, and the fog rolling in from the approaching storm, it was no longer safe to be on the ice. Luckily, I had not actually left the ship yet, so I was already safe. And though I was a little disappointed about not making it onto the ice during this crack event, I was glad to have at least been on the deck, so I could be part of the action, and watch this incredible phenomenon take place.

Drone image of the crack crossing the Polarstern, that formed on March 11. Photo taken my Manuel Ernst.

Even though the film crew never made it onto the ice this day to film the crack with their drone during this event, as everybody on the ice was called back to the ship before we had departed, the film crew was still able to fly their drone from the helicopter deck, and get some amazing photos of the landscape. In the above photo, you can see the crack spanning across the Polarstern, as well as a few other cracks in the distance. It is so strange to see this picture, knowing that I am there on that little ship in the middle of such vast emptiness. It reminds me what a remote and beautiful yet dangerous place this is. Sometimes I forget this, in the business of my daily routine, but it is nice to be reminded of what a unique place I am in.

Drone image of the cracks surrounding the Polarstern, that formed on March 11. Photo taken by Manuel Ernst.

With so many cracks opening up around us, my perspective about the ice has changed. I had gotten used to it being fairly unchanging and was getting perhaps a bit too comfortable with it. Almost complacent perhaps. But this crack event reminded me how dynamic the ice truly is. As pressure fields change across the floe, the ice could open up or ridge at any moment, and it moves fast. So you always have to be ready. The ice decides how it wants to move, and it does not care whether or not it is convenient for you. However, after watching this crack event, I thought to myself how lucky it is that these cracks never seem to open in places that are threatening to our scientific equipment and infrastructure on the ice. Once again, I was wrong.

View of the lead running between the Polarstern and Met City from the bridge. Photo taken by Christian Rohleder on March 11.

After I tired of observing the crack in the logistics area, I went inside to relax a bit in my room. But my relaxing was interrupted shortly after, when I heard chatter in the hallway that another crack had opened up. This time, crossing between the Polarstern and Met City, right across the path we take to get there. 10 meters of open water separating us from all of our atmospheric science equipment. Ruh-roh. I had spoken too soon; sometimes the cracks do open in places that are threatening to our equipment on the ice. And it was happening now.

The lead between the Polarstern and Met City. The Polarstern is on the close side of the lead, and Met City on the far side, in this image. Photo taken by Eric Brossier on March 12.

Fortunately, none of the science equipment was actually swallowed up by the lead. It all remained on the ice, on one side or the other of the lead. Only one instrument is dangerously close to the ice edge, which you can see in the left side of the picture above, on the far side of the lead. Luckily, all of our DataHawk equipment was inside the Met Hut, several meters from the ice edge, outside of harm’s way, for now. Though it is quite ironic that the first day we put any of our equipment onto the ice and left it there for the night was the day Met City was put in danger. Typical. 

Transporting equipment across the lead using kayaks. Photo taken by Eric Brossier on March 12.

The main problem created by the lead is that it cut across the power cord that runs from the Polarstern to Met City, which keeps the instruments running that are taking continuous measurements, and heats the Met Hut, so the technology is not damaged in the cold. When the lead first formed, and the power cord was in the water, the logistics team reacted quickly. Luckily, the weather was still favorable enough on March 11, when the lead first formed, to transport people across the lead via helicopter, to set up some generators. This response action can be seen three pictures above. But unfortunately, the generators cannot run forever before needing to be refueled, and the weather conditions the next day were not so nice.

 So on March 12, when refueling of the generators at Met City was necessary, they used kayaks to transport things across the lead, as helicopter operations were not possible. The lead was already frozen a quarter of a meter thick, so the kayaks were dragged across the ice. Some people managed to get to the other side of the lead, to pull the kayaks across, via a small bridge made from some broken ice chunks that was conveniently there. While they were there refueling the generator, and checking on some equipment, they managed to rescue some of the things we had left in the Met Hut, that should not stay in the cold for so long, including one of our ground station laptops, and some batteries. It was a relief to have these things back, and to know they were safe and sound back on the ship.

Looking Forward

Me holding the DataHawk at Met City, excited to begin flying.

Currently, a storm is passing through our area, and we are experiencing up to 20 m/s winds and near white-out conditions at times, which are expected to persist at least through the end of Sunday, March 15. So even though we are now fully set-up and ready to fly our DataHawk, we are thwarted by the weather. And with this lead separating us from the Met Hut, this may delay our work even more, as it may prevent us from getting out there as easily once the storm clears. Plus, some time will be needed to restore power to Met City and adjust the location of our launcher ice picks if necessary.

But as soon as the storm clears, and Met City is brought back to working condition, we hope to begin flying and get some data! I am excited to finally do what I came here to do and really begin my work with making an impact on our understanding of the Arctic climate. You can’t tell in the picture above, but I am smiling really big under my balaclava.

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