Specialists in atmospheric sciences are investigating particles in the Arctic region for causes of climate change in the north

Polarstern, a German research vessel, is about to embark on its icy journey across the Arctic. The four researchers from the University of Helsinki on board will be analysing the Arctic atmosphere and the processes that take place in it, such as the formation of fine particles. Observations carried out during the year-long project will help make increasingly accurate climate change models.

“What we are most interested in is change, as the Northern Hemisphere is changing at such a frighteningly radical pace,” says Research Coordinator Tuija Jokinen.

Jokinen is one of the 600 researchers working on the ship over the coming year, each of whom will spend a period of roughly two months on board. At any one time, the vessel will be carrying approximately 100 scientists. On top of that, getting to and from the ship takes an additional month.

Lauriane Quéléver, a doctoral student from the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR), is already on board for the first stage of the expedition, while doctoral student Tiia Laurila will board the vessel for the fourth stage, Tuija Jokinen for the fifth stage and Zoé Brasseur for the sixth stage, in the summer.

The group has also received training for the demanding conditions of the expedition, such as providing first aid, sea rescue, smoke diving and protecting oneself from polar bears.

Those staying behind will also be kept busy by the project. Mikko Sipilä, the head of INAR’s polar research group, will carry out measurements during the voyage in the research town of Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen and at the Station Nord research station in North Greenland. The measurements are vital for the project, as they will help gain an understanding of the geographical extent of the phenomena observed close to the North Pole.

Complex connections to the climate

In addition to the University of Helsinki, the Atmosphere Team of the expedition also includes the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) from Switzerland, which has two researchers participating in the second and third stages as well as a shipping container housing the measurement equipment. On board are a total of 16 devices which measure hundreds of gaseous substances as well as particles whose size ranges from one nanometre to several micrometres, and their composition.

Clouds are not formed without particles, and clouds not only reflect sunlight but also absorb thermal radiation from the Earth. This way, particles can, depending on the location and season, either prevent or accelerate the warming of the climate. In models describing climate change, atmospheric molecules and particles in fact have an important role, but in the Arctic region such processes are very poorly known.

Better understanding of the life of particles will, in turn, help understand their effect on climate change – what slows down atmospheric warming and what accelerates it. According to the climate report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the effect on climate change of aerosols in particular is the least well-known factor due to the considerable uncertainties of the observations related to their formation and life-cycle.

During the year, the researchers will look for sources of atmospheric compounds. They will also examine which atmospheric compounds condense into particles, how large these particles can grow and which factors affect these processes. The aim is to investigate, as part of the international academic community, the connections between the sea, sea ice and biological processes, as well as the effects of these changes on the climate and regional conditions.

“We are particularly looking forward to the spring when light, or solar radiation, will work wonders. The radiation initiates a chain reaction in which atmospheric compounds begin to transform, eventually forming particles. In turn, the particles either bind heat or scatter it back into space either directly or due to their cloud-forming effects,” Jokinen explains.

Because of weak satellite connections, researchers can be contacted only by email during the trip. The ship has very limited access to the telephone.

Further information

Tuija Jokinen, research coordinator, tuija.jokinen@helsinki.fi, @DrFinland, +358 50 311 7588

Mikko Sipilä, associate professor, mikko.sipila@helsinki.fi, +358 40 709 3103

@PolarYear: Over the coming year, researchers working at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR) will be involved in a total of three large measurement projects focused on the Arctic region. The researchers will be measuring the formation of fine particles at the North Pole, as well as in the research town of Ny-Ålesund on Spitsbergen and, later on, at the Villum Research Station at Station Nord in North Greenland. The researchers will comment on the projects’ progress and results on @PolarYear accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Follow the ship on the project website

Photos of the project for media