Photo by Lars Lehnert

August 12, 2018

I reached the North Pole on the Swedish icebreaker Oden. I was part of an international scientific expedition, a joint effort between the National Science Foundation and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat (SPRS). The Arctic Ocean 2018 MOCCHA (Microbiological – Ocean – Cloud Coupling in the High Arctic) campaign brought together 40 scientists working on a dozen different research projects, 23 crew members on Oden, and 10 logistical support staff from SPRS, who all together represent at least 10 different countries.

The expedition was a success because it thrived on the collaborative spirit we all embraced, and benefited from the diverse experiences we all brought the table. The scientific team included experts in sea ice physics, microbiology, oceanography, meteorology, and atmospheric chemistry, who targeted complex, interdisciplinary research questions. The scientific work was made possible by the wonderful crew and logistics staff, who were always extremely helpful, invested in our success, and interested in our research. The nature of living on a ship for over two months with this diverse group of people enabled cultural exchange as well as scientific exchange of ideas.

Photo by Rachel Kirpes

A view of the Swedish icebreaker Oden anchored at Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Oden was my home for nine weeks on the transit north from southern Sweden and through the high Arctic. This ship is 100 m long, can break through two meter thick ice, and was the first non-nuclear powered vessel to reach the North Pole in 1991.

Aerial photo by Lars Lehnert

After spending two weeks traveling north into the pack ice and searching for the perfect ice floe, we established this ice station and our home for the next month. This aerial photo, taken from our helicopter, shows Oden in the bottom left, moored to the floe in one of four possible configurations to ensure the ship was always facing into the wind for onboard air sampling.

By hiking, skiing, or snowmobiling along an established path running on the right side of the floe, we could reach the “open lead” site a few kilometers away, the large patch of open water at the upper right. This path took us around melt ponds on the ice, on plywood bridges across a couple cracks in the ice, and past “Mount John”, the large snow ridge below the open lead named after one of our scientists. As we remained on this floe for several weeks, we slowly drifted and the ice situation at the open lead and around the floe was constantly changing.

At the open lead, scientists were primarily focused on studying bubbles, particles, and air fluxes from the water into the atmosphere, as well as sampling the organic-enriched surface of the water.

Photo by Rachel Kirpes

Another view of our ice floe shows the other research stations set up on the ice. The two balloons were used for meteorological measurements and to collect cloudwater samples and particle samples from above clouds. The tall mast was also used for meteorological research. Understanding the local meteorology is crucial to put our atmospheric chemistry measurements in context.

Following the electrical lines to the second shed and red dome tent was the ROV site, used to study parameters underneath the ice, including light transmission through the 1– 2 meter thick sea ice.

Aerial photo by Christian Katlein

A view from above shows the roof of the 4th deck labs where most of our atmospheric sampling instruments were located. Sticking out from the roof were all of our atmospheric inlets, carefully placed towards the front of the ship. We constantly monitored wind speed, wind direction, and pollution levels to make sure none of our samples would be contaminated by the ship itself.

I had an atmospheric particle sampler connected to the inlet on the left. All the particle samples I collected on the ship were stored for offline analysis of single particles by electron microscopy and Raman spectroscopy. I am analyzing these samples this fall at UM and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to determine the composition of individual particles and the distribution of chemical species within single particles. These parameters, known as chemical mixing state, help us understand the particle sources and potential climate impacts.

Most of my work was done aboard the ship. In addition to sampling on the 4th deck, we ran experiments on the foredeck in a lab and in an adjacent tent. For my project, I was working with two researchers from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and a graduate student from Villanova University. Everything in the lab had to be securely strapped down since we were working on a moving ship! Through our experiments, we hope to better understand interactions between the ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic environment.

Photo by Paty Matrai

We collected seawater for our experiments using this Niskin bottle rosette on the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) instrument deployed from the aft of the ship. The CTD allows for each 12 liter bottle to be deployed at any water depth desired, collecting samples throughout the water column. For our project, we were only interested in collecting surface water, which is expected to be enriched in organic matter. Using the CTD rosette, we could collect our required 200 liters of water all at once.

Unfortunately, dense ice conditions behind the ship often meant deploying the CTD was not possible. For these experiments, we had to improvise, by using the ship’s crane to deploy one Niskin bottle at a time over the side of the ship, where there was a small area of open water. In Arctic field work, we often encounter (and conquer!) logistical challenges as well as analytical challenges to collect our samples and analyze our data.

Photo by Mario Hoppmann

We also went out on the ice to collect water from the open lead site and from a freshwater melt pond for additional experiments. This water collection was very sophisticated, involving leaning over the ice edge with a bucket.

Any time we went on the ice, it was required to wear an insulated buoyant ice suit, and when working near the ice edge, we also wore life vests. The ice edges were always checked before water sampling, and ledges were cut back to a safe thickness if necessary.

Any ice work was also done accompanied by a polar bear guard, who was a crew member or scientist armed with binoculars and a rifle. We were always in radio communication with the ship’s bridge and could be called back in at any time due to wildlife sightings or poor visibility. Working on the ice was exciting, but safety was always taken very seriously in such a harsh environment.

Photo by Rachel Kirpes

Our most unexpected, exciting moments were our wildlife sightings! I was very lucky to be helping out at the open lead the day this walrus visited. We were surprised to see a walrus this far north, above 89˚latitude, where the water was 4000 meters deep. The walrus was very interested in this sled carrying our surface water sampler, as well as the buoys and other instrumentation deployed in the water.

Photo by Christian Katlein

We also had a few polar bear visitors! This curious bear was very interested in the marker flags on the ice, eventually tearing down this one. This bear also investigated all the other equipment set up on the ice. I like to think our animal visitors were inspecting to make sure we were all doing sound science.

Photo by Rachel Kirpes

Some of my favorite moments were the rare sunny days! Summer in the high Arctic means 24 hour daylight, but it is also cloudy or foggy nearly 90 % of the time! Clear skies also usually meant very pristine, “clean” air from an atmospheric chemistry perspective, making these rare moments the perfect time to stand outside, capture some photos, and enjoy the environment.

Photo by Rachel Kirpes

Midnight September 18

Another exciting milestone was a our first sunset on September 18, after over seven weeks in the high Arctic. Even so, it didn’t get completely dark; I captured this scene around midnight.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kirpes

Summing up

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I started grad school, I never thought it would take me all the way to the North Pole! I conducted some really exciting experiments, collaborated with wonderful, brilliant scientists from many different countries, survived two and a half months without internet, and experienced firsthand the unique, dynamic Arctic environment.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kirpes


The Pratt Lab research is supported by the National Science Foundation Arctic OPP-1724585.

We are grateful to the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat for logistical support.

Collaborators are Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and Villanova University