Marine research

Arctic Ice Declines Rapidly

German icebreaker has new data from the 2012 ice minimum

5.12.2012 | This fall, the research icebreaker "Polarstern" returned after two months at sea. 54 scientists and technicians from twelve nations collected data on the retreat of the sea ice and the consequences for the Arctic Ocean and its ecosystems.
Several new technologies were used to film and photograph life in and below the ice, down to a depth of 4,400 metres. During her expedition, the Polarstern ("Polar Star") has travelled more than 12,000 kilometres and stopped at 36 stations. At nine ice stations, the ship moored for several days to examine the ice, the water beneath it, and the sea bottom. With the so-called "EM-Bird", an electromagnetic sensor to record the thickness of sea ice, 3,500 kilometres of sea ice were measured from a helicopter. The researchers determined that the multiyear sea ice had declined considerably.

Prof. Antje Boetius
Bild vergrößern
Prof. Antje Boetius
Already in July 2012, the Siberian shelves were ice-free, whereas in the summer of 2011, the Polarstern had still encountered multiyear ice in this region. As a result of the melting ice, the fresh water content of the sea surface has increased. "The Arctic of the future will consist of thinner sea ice, which will therefore survive the summer less frequently, will drift more quickly and permit more light to reach the ocean. This will lead to great changes in the composition of sea life", professor Antje Boetius explains, head of the expedition and of the joined Helmholtz-Max-Planck research group for Deep-sea Ecology and Technology at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

For the first time, the researchers were also able to conduct large-scale investigations of the biological communities living directly on the lower side of the Arctic pack ice, with the help of a new type of under-ice trawl. "We had a polar cod in our net almost every time. This species is particularly adapted to life below the ice - it does not occur without ice." Dr. Hauke Flores explains the importance of sea ice as a habitat; she is in charge of this research topic at AWI. Sea ice physicists from AWI even used an under-ice robot to record the light incidence and algae distribution on the lower side of the ice. They detected the diatom Melosira artica in high concentrations. These single cell algae produce metre-long chains and form dense accumulations beneath the ice. Photos from the deep sea have shown that these algae drop to the bottom of the sea as a result of the melting ice.
Scientists of the <em>Polarstern</em>
Bild vergrößern
(© Stefan Hendricks, AWI)

Scientists of the Polarstern | conduct measurements of the Arctic ice

According to the AWI researchers, the rapid changes in the Arctic are therefore not restricted to the sea surface. Atlantic water flowing into the Arctic at a depth of several hundred metres has an elevated temperature and salinity which could be measured down to a depth of several thousands of metres in the Arctic Basins. Images and measurements of the bottom of the sea showed that the deep sea of the Central Arctic is not a desert, but that sea cucumbers, sponges, feather stars and sea anemones gather to feed on the sea algae.

The warm temperatures, the retreat of the ice and the greater light availability beneath the ice causes the seasonality of the Central Arctic to shift. The production and the export of algae is taking place earlier, as the results of annually anchored sediment traps show. Due to the very thin ice cover, the Polarstern was able to navigate further North and later in the year. Hence the sea ice physicists were able to collect important data at the start of the freezing period. These measurements on the newly formed thin ice are important because this type of sea ice will occur more frequently in the future.
Bild vergrößern
(© Stefan Hendricks, AWI)

The "Polarstern" | in the Central Artic Ocean

The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and in the high and mid-latitude oceans. The Institute coordinates German polar research and provides important infrastructure such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctic to the international scientific world. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.   (© Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research AWI / AcademiaNet)
Ralf Röchert

More information


  1. Read what our members say about AcademiaNet.

Follow us


  1. Four AcademiaNet members secure funding from the Swedish Brain Foundation

    Their projects cover Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, depression and neonatal brain development

  2. Ursula Keller has won the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist, known as the ‘Swiss Nobel Prize’

    The physicist is honoured for her work on ultrafast lasers, including systems now used in manufacturing, communications technology and surgery

  3. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser receives Croonian Medal and Lecture from the Royal Society

    She was chosen for her ground-breaking work on plant hormones and her dedication to gender equality in science

  4. Agneta Nordberg receives Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alzheimer’s Association

    The neuroscientist is known for her ground-breaking work on amyloid PET imaging and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine

  5. Riikka Rinnan to start new Center of Excellence at the University of Copenhagen

    The Center will investigate the biology of volatile substances and how it responds to climate change.

Academia Net