'The world is under threat': Researchers warn of melting ice at end of mammoth Arctic mission
By Rachel More
Bremen, Germany - After spending almost a year adrift in ice, Arctic explorers returned to Germany on Monday at the end of a record-setting expedition and having seen first-hand the impact of climate change on one of the planet's most crucial ecosystems.
The German research vessel Polarstern docked at its home port of Bremerhaven after being welcomed on its approach by ships and sailing boats blasting their horns under a clear blue sky.
The ship was home to the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC, which was trapped in ice for a full year close to the North Pole, including for the first time during a polar winter.
"This world is under threat. We saw for ourselves that the ice is disappearing," Markus Rex, head of the expedition, said at a press conference after the crew's return.
He warned that an ice-free Arctic summer, which could become a reality in a matter of decades, would have a major impact on the global climate and the world population, including the hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas.
The Polarstern icebreaker left the ice floe on Sunday, according to a spokeswoman for Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, which led the international study.
It set off on September 20, 2019, from Norway's Arctic Circle city of Tromso.
Over the course of the expedition, hundreds of scientists collected data on the ocean, ice and atmosphere. Over 70 research institutes from almost 20 different countries took part in the project.
The mission was inspired by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his ground-breaking Arctic expedition some 125 years ago, when - according to Rex - the region was 10 degrees cooler than it is today.
German Research Minister Anja Karliczek greeted the captain and crew of the Polarstern on the gangway in Bremerhaven.
"Only once we know how the climate in the Arctic is developing are we in a position to take precautions against climate change here in Germany and effectively counteract climate change," Karliczek said.
The MOSAiC expedition has gathered "a unique trove of data" that will benefit generations, she added. Scientists will now begin the years-long work of analysing the data.
With a budget of 140 million euros (165 million dollars), the expedition in the central Arctic was the most expensive and logistically ambitious to date.
Hundreds of researchers braved 150 days of polar night, temperatures as low as minus 42 degrees Celsius and winds reaching 84 kilometres per hour. Scores of polar bears were also spotted nearby.
In February, the Polarstern drifted to a position of 88°36' North, just 156 kilometres from the North Pole. No other vessel has been further north in winter.
While the crew are leaving behind a hostile region, they now return to a different world, in which the coronavirus pandemic has altered life dramatically.
"I am still not quite used to seeing so many faces, and everyone with masks," Rex said in Bremerhaven.
The pandemic even threatened to put a stop to the massive project earlier in the year, when a crew change was disrupted by travel restrictions.
Reinforcements had to be brought by boat rather than plane, meaning that the Polarstern interrupted its trip briefly to sail to Svalbard, an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, to pick up the new crew members before returning to the ice.