By Natalie Prinz |
In the name of the ’G.R.I.F.F.’ Project we have already been on our way on the expedition PS100 for three weeks, circling the Fram Strait between Spitsbergen and Greenland. We encountered the first sea ice in the second week and with the ice, many challenges, but also many positive surprises. Up here in the Arctic Ocean, the minimal sea ice extends, during northern hemisphere summer, to approximately 7 million km2 (in comparison to 15 km2 in winter). Our route lead straight towards the ice margin and, due to the fact that the Polarstern is equipped with the highest German ice class ARC3, we were perfectly prepared for the confrontation with the cold floes. For many of us the new experience of breaking the ice was very exciting. Close to the ice, the sea state calms drastically, and with it also the wind. Breaking the ice with the ship is not comparable to going through rough seas at all. The keel of the Polarstern is 11m deep and her steep bow simply pushes small floes out of the way. When the thickness of the ice increases and the officers on the bridge cannot avoid the floes anymore, the ship ramps up onto the ice and breaks it with its weight and momentum of travel. Not only the movement is much more unpredictable when the ship and the ice collide- a bit like off-road driving- but the sound it creates is intriguing.
As a student helper of the Biology team, I am mainly involved in the deployment of a multinet with which we catch zooplankton, as well as helping to conduct the experiments onboard. In fact, we are very interested in who consumes whom and in order to assess those food net connections, we start by analysing ice algae. On the 3rd of August, the ship went alongside a very large ice floe and our team was lifted onto the ice with a crane from the ship. There, we drilled an ice core with a hand held corer. The ice core was melted in the lab before we could use the water to filter it in order to extract the ice algae. Back at the university we will try to find out which algae components are found in the zooplankton, using the ice algae as basic food resource. Another part of the project is the observation and counting of larger animals like sea birds and mammals that we see along the way. Hence, we cooperated with two South African mechanical engineers that are interested in the vibrations of the vessel when it drives through ice. As the two of them work in shifts on the bridge to conduct detailed ice observations, the six members of our biology team joined them to acquire all data of the extent and size parameters of the ice around the ship as well as note down all animal sightings.
Our research area, also called ‘the Bio-Box’, is a squared area enclosed by the 0° meridian and 7° West, 79° and 80,5° North. As our route lead along the box, we were regularly conducting multinet casts and counted megafauna. The RV Polarstern carries two helicopters that are used for ice observation flights, mammal count flights, transport and many more scientific operations. Being able to work on one of the animal count flights yesterday was a very special experience for me. Seeing the eternal sea ice from approximately 70m altitude made me feel humble: as the ship became smaller and smaller until it got out of sight, I realised again how small human beings are within the vastness of nature. Nevertheless, we have such a huge aspiration to better understand our environment. On the flight we spotted a school of narwhales that were gently roaming through an area of ice-free water and later on even four finwhales, the second biggest baleen whales in the oceans. Not only the animals in the water, but also the ones that dwell on the ice are of particular interest for our study. Until now we have already seen- from the ship or from the air- thirteen polar bears on our trip, either strolling across the ice, rolling on their backs, foraging or swimming in the water. Of course, these sights are always something extraordinary for every scientist.
Being cut off all from types of social media up here at 80°N and writing emails with limited amounts of characters as the only means of digital conversation is a very pleasant experience. Therefore, the group of scientists on board has immediately gotten to know each other and it is a delight to share the life onboard, next to all these hours of hard work. Overall, I can say that witnessing all the different scientific work has only intensified my motivation to become more educated in marine science. Every evening there is a ‘Science Meeting’ where everyone gets together to communicate the most recent information about the weather, ice conditions, the route, achievements, operations of the next day and often include presentations from the different working groups and their research. I am captured by the fascination of the sea and I try- grateful for this opportunity to be here- to absorb as much as I can. A highly interesting expedition hopefully leading to plenty of scientific findings!
Natalie Prinz, Master Student, University of Bremen