As the RRS Sir David Attenborough gets set for her first ice trials next month it seems whilstwe were occupied with nomenclature – we missed a trick. Those pristinely-logical Germans have a quite extraordinary plan to get scientists to the North Pole.
Perhaps you’ll recall the heady days before Brexit, Boris and Trump?
It now seems, no doubt with some heavily tinted glasses, all we had to argue about was the naming of a rather ambitious scientific research ship.
It felt at the time that the nation was so confident Britannia ruled the polar waves we grew drunk on ‘Boaty McBoatface’ smugness. Whilst NERC and the British Antarctic Survey decided not to bow to social media pressure – deeming this an unsuitable name for their brand spanking new £200 million polar research ship – there was a palpable sense in the air that we could, well, afford such irreverence.
This was to be an advanced piece of equipment taking scientists into harm’s way to gather data about the most vulnerable parts of our fragile planet – literally a flagship of our scientific endeavour. We had earnt, surely, the right to fluff our feathers a little with some great British whimsy over her name?
Yet, as the RRS Sir David Attenborough gets set for her first ice trials next month it seems whilst we were occupied with nomenclature – we missed a trick. At almost exactly the same time that the royal naming ceremony of the Sir David Attenborough saw a bottle smash on the hull, those pristinely-logical Germans had set sail for the Arctic with a quite extraordinary plan to get scientists to the North Pole. And, in a strong field of unusual ways to find one’s self at the top of the World – including being on, in, or behind almost every vehicle imaginable – theirs has to be the most surprising: They plan to get there by not moving at all.
In September last year, the German research vessel Polarstern departed for the East Siberian Sea. A month later it performed a manoeuvre less boisterous than the crew of an icebreaker are perhaps used to. Rather than merrily smashing its way through the Arctic ice, the engines were switched off, and the ship quietly, and without fuss, became frozen solid in ice. This was to be icebreaker ballet.
From that moment on it has been at the mercy of the Arctic drift. The crew hope it’ll take them across the central Arctic and the pole. Presumably crossed fingers are rarely the central navigational method on the bridge of high-end research vessels – but when travelling by ice, uncertainty has to be embraced.
“Where we go will depend entirely on how the ice drifts,” says, a remarkably pragmatic, Professor Markus Rex, leader of the project – named MOSAiC. “That’s an aspect we simply have to accept; we might not always like where it takes us, but like it or not, that’s where we’re going,” Well, quite. But their amble across the arctic won’t all be increasingly irksome card games, scurvy and long glances at that last tin of spam…far from it.
Indeed, the expedition’s huge compliment of scientists and equipment have departed the ship onto the ice to explore the Arctic climate. In fact, they have set up an entire network – no, an Armada – of stations in a 50km radius around the Polarstern to do so more comprehensively than ever before.
When it comes to scientific expeditions like this, it’s easy to imagine the days of jeopardy are over. That the biggest risk is a spot of homesickness and some dodgy mobile phone coverage, but the truth is actual lives are at stake here. To date, the team have spent roughly 500 hours working on the ice. There have been 8 days with gale-force wind speeds exceeding 54 km/h – during the most powerful storm, on 16 November 2019, wind speeds of up to 100 km/hr were clocked. As a result of Polar Bear sightings, or approaching storms, the ice floe has been evacuated at short notice roughly half a dozen times.
It really is about as tough as experimentation gets. Let us hope that none of the expedition feels compelled to announce a long and sombre walk.