Arctic storms in the land of polar bears – a young particle scientist goes on the work trip of a lifetime

An atmospheric sciences atmosphere expedition spent a year in the Arctic Ocean researching air comparable in purity to the air of the preindustrial era. Climate change was also present as ice melted beneath the research camp.

That night a storm was brewing somewhere near the North Pole. A particularly raw wind blew over the ice floes. Moored to one of them was the icebreaker and research vessel, the Polarstern. A team of ten, specialised in atmospheric research, were busy examining the measuring devices lifted onto the ice.

A period of intense weather had been forecast, so they would be spending the whole night on the ice, observing the weather's effects on the polar atmosphere. The team was accompanied by an armed guard. Overall visibility was poor. Should a polar bear appear on the horizon, there would only be a few minutes to escape. Everything would have to be left on the ice.

Tiia Laurila, a doctoral student from the University of Helsinki and one of the Finnish members on the team, was still excited, despite the momentary ordeal of the weather conditions. And the aerosol researcher from Kumpula had got where she wanted to be.

“Stormy days on the ship were very exciting and different from the norm. There were times when I would assist different groups as a volunteer round the clock,” Laurila says.

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Images: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

As if on a snowy field

Weather balloons would be sent up according to a set schedule whenever it seemed that the storm wind would not smash them into the ship. On the floe Laurila, like the others in the research team, wore a one-piece thermal suit. If the ice should break or a crack develop in the floe, the thermal suit would prolong the survival time in the freezing water.

On that evening the surface of the ice was sturdy and rough.

‘’It looked and felt like we were walking on a snowy field,’’ says Laurila.

In the end the storm was not as bad as everyone had feared.

‘’But even a small storm felt severe in such an exposed terrain. Yet more distinct changes in the environment were caused by the warm fronts, because they literally melted the landscape and made it unrecognisable in no time.’’

For the clouds

The doctoral student of atmospheric sciences was invited to join the expedition with the research vessel Polarstern back in 2018. The aim was to spend three months in the Arctic Ocean.

Tiia Laurila specializes in the study of ultrafine aerosol particles and is writing her thesis on the subject. Her role on the vessel was to maintain and service the research equipment, to ensure the high quality of the data. The Finnish researchers were particularly focused on studying how clouds formed on top of the nanoparticles. Laurila says she herself is interested in the precursors of the particles that make up the clouds.

“I study extremely small particles, their formation and growth in the atmosphere.”

On the way, at last

Owing to the corona pandemic, Laurila's departure was delayed many times. She had packed and unpacked her bags so often that when she finally got called to board the vessel in July, she had very little time to prepare herself.

“I threw my stuff in the bag right before leaving. I took interesting research articles and good video games with me for entertainment. I also packed the manuals for the instruments and my work laptop."

That was pretty much all she needed, as most of the equipment was already in the container.

“The gear for the arctic conditions I got once I’d arrived.”

Since contact with the Arctic polar region is difficult, Laurila had written letters in advance to her partner and those close to her to mark important dates in the calendar. She wanted to be present in the daily lives of loved ones, despite the distance.

“Even though I was very curious and enthusiastic about this trip, I felt like I was missing out on so much. My goddaughter had just been born, and my spouse and I had planned to move, something which then had to be done without me. I even spent my birthday quarantined in Germany.”

The North is changing

After spending two weeks in quarantine, Tiia Laurila travelled past the Svalbard archipelago on the icebreaker Akademik Tryoshnikov to the Arctic Ocean. The air was warm and foggy throughout the trip.

Once onboard the Polarstern, Laurila met the research group leader Tuija Jokinen, who was getting ready for her trip home. The ice floe to which the ship had been moored at the beginning of summer by now had completely melted. Many of the returning researchers were distraught at having witnessed first-hand the dramatic effects of climate change in the Arctic environment.

Laurila had a day and a half to exchange information with Jokinen before the latter departed and Laurila settled in on the research vessel. She shared a tiny cabin with a French biologist.

“In total, there were about a hundred of us on the vessel. After three months of research, a period of quarantine and the time spent on the icebreaker, we all knew each other by name,” says Laurila.

Sailing on the ocean currents

It took a week before another ice floe was found for Polarstern to follow. It was important for many of the studies conducted on the icebreaker that it travelled along with an ice floe, drifting with the ocean currents.

“Getting acquainted with researchers from different disciplines was extremely interesting,” Laurila says.

“I got to participate in very different research projects. For example, I took part in an expedition that studied the changes in the landscape, hiking in protective clothing over crevices and melt ponds on the ice floe.”

Particles in the Polar atmosphere might reveal information to us about the state of climate change in the northern hemisphere. These particles in the atmosphere affect the formation of clouds, which in turn have an important role in accelerating or mitigating climate change.

The formation and behaviour of the particles in the atmosphere are still not well understood, even though their effects are considerable. The best place to research them naturally is in the place where climate change is currently most clearly visible.

The night brings a surprise

According to Laurila, the best days on the research vessel were the sunny ones.

"If the sky was clear, I knew even before stepping into the research container that we were going to get good and clear measurement data."

On clear days, collecting particle data is easier and more interesting as the sun’s radiation plays a vital role in the creation of particles, Laurila explains.

So for this very reason, the most astonishing thing during the trip was that the research equipment showed the formation of particles at night, too. Based on previous research, this was not to be expected.

During the trip, Laurila observed how the Arctic Ocean settled down for the winter little by little. In early autumn, the sun had circled around the vessel without setting at all, staying constantly above the horizon. Now the weather was getting colder and on clear evenings the vessel was surrounded by a stunning starry sky.

Wistful return

The daily routine – breakfast at 7:30am and dinner at 6:30pm – soon started to feel normal. The transition to everyday life on the vessel was painless.

“On the ship, you soon got used to working all the time. Even when I had time off from my research, I often volunteered to help out with the other researchers’ projects,” says Laurila.

Coming back home in October felt wistful and strange. The community of scientists had spent three months doing research, safe from the coronavirus.

Anxiety was brought by something other than the pandemic. Curious young polar bears liked to pay the research vessel a visit. Often, the researchers had to just leave their equipment on the ice and flee back to the ship.

“On our way back, when the ship reached port, we hugged each other one last time. And as we stepped outside, we had to put on our face masks and learn to keep a two-metre distance again.”

The article has been published in Finnish in the 1/2021 issue of the Yliopisto magazine. It was translated by the following English philology undergraduates: Emilia Julmala, Meri Kangas-Kärki, Elisa Kari, Tiia Karvonen, Anni Kauppinen , Jenni-Erika Kivelä, Hanna Knuutila, Kati Knuutila, Simeon Kokkomäki, Okko Länsikunnas, Minja Pajari, Emma Pakonen, Anne Patosalmi, Matilda Roto, Routa Salmenkivi, Noora Suominen, Kaung Thein and Artjom Toykka. It was post-edited by John Calton, lecturer in English at the Department of Languages.

Read more on this topic: Researchers at the University of Helsinki have resolved for the first time how the environment affects the formations of nanoparticles in the Arctic.

Particle Scientists in the North

The atmospheric science researchers’ MOSAiC project (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) is the world’s largest Arctic Ocean research project. The multidisciplinary operation was carried out on the Polarstein research vessel in the Arctic Ocean, and its planning had started in the international research community back in 2011.

The University of Helsinki participated in the project in 2020 together with a Swiss research group. The Finnish research group examined how nanoparticles form in the arctic atmosphere and their Swiss colleagues complemented the research by observing how macroparticles affect the formation of clouds. Without particles there would be no clouds, as water condenses on top of particles.

The data gathered will be freely available in 2022.

“We aim to work out how the gaseous compounds vaporising from the seawater and ice condense and form nanoparticles,” says Tuija Jokinen, an atmospheric scientist and research coordinator from the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR) at Helsinki University’s Kumpula campus.

The atmospheric conditions in the far north are perfect for this kind of research in that the clean air resembles that of the preindustrial era.

“In examining the particles, we also investigate how clouds are formed. Depending on the season, clouds cool down or heat up the climate, Jokinen notes.

Over the course of the year, 442 research scientists visited the research ship, but only one Finnish atmospheric scientist joined the project at a time. Each scientist stayed on board for a two-month period. Counting in travel time to and from the destination, joining the expedition meant three to six months away from home.