The month on Polarstern coming to an end

The cruise on Polarstern basically spanned a section across the Fram Strait, with the last station being in Kongsfjorden. As we sailed eastwards, approaching the station, Claudia and I were on deck to do underway measurements with a towed CTD. The night before we had seen the mountains of Spitzbergen in the distance, and whales had followed us all night, but now, the sea had become misty. Suddenly Andreas pointed behind us, and we now saw that we had sailed into the Fjord without noticing, and that we were now surrounded by steep mountains.

When the last station was finished we sailed down along the coast to meet up with AWI’s smaller research vessel “Heinke” which was doing fisheries research around Svalbard. For logistical reasons, some samples were transferred to Polarstern, so the dinghy went in and sailed over to get them. At the same time they took some awesome pictures of the two research vessels side by side. Mind blowing that Germany chooses to post so much money and energy into Polar research.


Heinke and Polarstern in Isfjorden

As we had been really efficient during the cruise (mainly because we were lucky with the weather) we had time for us to go visit Longyearbyen on Svalbard while the crew handled official things. We all queued up for the life boats, which took us to land despite of rain and 7 Bf wind strength. Longyearbyen came off as rainy and cold, and most of us made our way to the small shopping centre for a coffee and a cinnamon bun. Later we walked around a bit, and then went to visit the small Polar museum, which showed the history of adventurers trying to reach the North Pole in more or less crazy ways. After a few hours we were all pretty much cold and wet, and it was time to go back to Polarstern. In the small harbor sturdy sailboats were moored, and I love the north, but I have to admit that I wondered if the trip to Svalbard really is worth doing in a sailboat. The wind had picked up even more, and a few people were beginning to feel sick on the way back to Polarstern. So As we pulled up alongside, most were happy to leave the life boat. Makes you wonder what it would be like if we had to enter them in a real emergency – I guess the water and the people are not likely to be calm in such an event. Good thing that they make emergency drills with us on the first day on every cruise.
When everyone was back onboard we started the trip back to Tromsø where Polarstern would get ready for the next cruise. On the way we packed up our instruments, cleaned the labs and wrote reports. But many of us also volunteered to help out doing a “plastic transect”.

I guess many people have become aware of the growing problem of plastic in the ocean, with the horrific picture of whales washing up on beaches with bellies full of garbage and the so-called “plastic islands” in the large oceanic gyres. Despite of this, the large amount of plastic observed in the Arctic Ocean has surprised my colleagues working with the subject. On our cruise, Mine was in charge of measuring micro plastic with pumps on the CTD, but also used a number of different methods to account for larger pieces. One of the easier methods is to put a person on the deck of Polarstern for an hour, asking them to note the plastic they see as we steam towards our destination. Only problem is that it’s quite cold, so you need a fair amount of people to get a full transect from Svalbard to Tromsø. And in the end I think they managed to sign up enough to cover every second hour of the trip.

As part of her work at AWI, Mine has created a website with a litter database. Here, everybody can volunteer to count plastic while at sea. All that is needed is to take a georeferenced picture – automatic on most mobile phones as long as they have a signal I guess.

We reached Tromsø early in the morning, and sailed in through the Lofoten Archipelago in beautiful sunshine. Again. The trip to the Fram Strait was a great experience, but we were also all looking forward to seeing our families again.


A day on Polarstern

I wake up from the buzzing of my phone. It’s dark in the room and my eyes refuse to open. Whatever, I will sleep a bit more.

When I’m woken again, I don’t feel any more awake than I did the first time. But I know I should get up. I have been sleeping for nine hours – that somehow should be enough. The door behind our room is repeatedly slammed open and then closed, accompanied by running feet and muffled talking. There’s probably whales outside.


I go out in our room and look out the window. Claudia is still asleep, but I know that she wants me to open up the curtains so we get a bit of light in. It’s the Arctic summer, and never really gets dark, but our curtains block out all light. After taking a shower in our tiny bathroom I go out to find some breakfast. It’s noon, and everybody else already had lunch at 11.30. It’s the main meal of the day on Polarstern, and usually consists of potatoes, some meat, sauce and a bit of vegetables. It’s great if you’re into traditional German food. But it’s usually not really my thing. So I go downstairs to the crew’s cantina and fix myself some breakfast. Usually coffee and bread with peanutbutter or pancakes.

Then it’s time to drop by the winch room where Laura and Wilken are working to check up on what’s happening and how their watch has been. On Polarstern cruises, there’s a tight schedule of the different instruments that go in the water to collect the samples. Sometimes everything works out as planned, but often changes occur, so before each watch we need to know what’s going on – and then continuously keep an eye on the plan.

We have divided the watches in two 12-hour shifts, and I share the night shift with Claudia – working from four in the afternoon to four in the morning. In the beginning it was hard to get used to, but as time passed we actually came to like the night shift. On a busy ship like Polarstern, with almost 100 people on board, it’s actually quiet nice to get the quiet night to yourself.

We don’t work the whole 12 hours, only when the CTD goes in – which it often does at night. So I go back to the room, where I spent a couple of hours working on the computer. At home, I usually work remotely on supercomputers through the internet, but on Polarstern this is of course not possible. Instead, I read up on papers that I need to read, and work on my own papers. Later I meet with some of the others for coffee.

In addition to the physical oceanography work we do on board, Claudia and I have agreed to keep an eye on a machine that continuously measures gases in the atmospheric. So I go to the floor beneath the bridge and note how the measurements are coming along. Then I get a small bottle and go down to the working deck, where we take a water sample everyday. Here, all the work is carried out when we are on station, and I chat a bit with the crew before going upstairs again.

Slowly, people are going to bed, and Claudia and I start preparing for the CTD. In the winch room Mine is already writing down a detailed plan for the in-situ pumps that will be attached to the line. Mine works with plastic pollution, and the pumps will measure micro plastics in the water column. We talk through the plan with the crew, and Claudia suits up to go on deck and drive the CTD out. I stay upstairs to turn on the CTD and guide the measurements. It’s all a matter of communication between me, Sebastian who is controlling the winch and the crew on deck – both Claudia, Mine’s people and the deckhand.

Once the CTD is in the water I turn it on, and ask Sebastian to start the decent. On the way down we do stops at the depths discussed with Mine to mount the pumps. In the end the CTD is at depth, 1600 metres, we take the water samples that are planned here and then pull it up so far that the pumps are located in the designated depths. And then we wait. The pumps need to be in for 1.5 hours, so we have time to get a coffee and talk, while we also keep an eye on the bottom depth and the CTD depth. The crew on the bridge always make an effort to keep the ship in the same place for the duration of the station, but there will always be some drift, so we need to make sure that the CTD does not suddenly hit the bottom. Despite of it being in the middle of the night, it’s still light outside, and the mood is good in the room – though Mine is tense, she is always worried that something will happen to the pumps. Towards the end of the pumping, the deck crew go back down to receive the pumps, and when everybody is ready I ask Sebastian to start raising the CTD. On the way up we help each other to keep an eye on the pump depth, so the CTD can be stopped in time for the pumps to come off. And we stop at the designated depths for water samples. As we approach the surface, Claudia starts calling the people who will work with the water samples. They are in bed sleeping, and since we never really know when the CTD will be at the surface, we have a list with people to call. On the computer screen we have plots of the measured salinity, temperature and chlorophyll, so many of the water sample people drop by the winch room to get to know what to expect in their sampling; the physical environment affects the biology, and the biologists may decide to do extra measurements in certain cases.

Once the CTD is back on deck it is secured, and our job is over for now. The next is Nicole who measures plankton in a net. It’s early morning, and it’s time for Claudia and I to go to bed.