Preparing for an icy year in the arctic: Interview with Bjela König

The following interview was conducted in German by Sebastian Grote and originally published in the Helmholtz Perspektiven magazine in Fall 2019. It was translated by GCCIR staff members.

Bjela König is the team leader for safety and logistics personnel for the MOSAiC expedition.

1. The MOSAiC expedition involves bringing a modern research icebreaker close to the north pole in winter. It is the first expedition of its kind. What are the risks of such a mission?

Indeed, we have to face new challenges, because a comparable endeavor has never been undertaken before. Firstly, we have to let go of the idealized image of snow-white icy landscapes seamlessly surrounding the ship. There will be many pools of melted ice and we’ll have to  stomp through water on many occasions. Aside from that, we could get completely snowed in. Storms and blizzards will change the landscape. These could also cause the ice surrounding the ship to push together and form hummocks* under the increased pressure, or to break and drift apart.

2. Could the ice floe break?

Yes, we are preparing for such a scenario as well, even if there is only a very small chance of that happening right under our feet. The area surrounding the ship will constantly be monitored by infrared cameras. This way we can detect and prepare for potential breaks hours before they occur. But we are also aware that we will likely have to move the temporary tents and research camp on the ice throughout the year.

3. What are the biggest risks?

Many dangers will result from the weather conditions. If there is fog, we will have difficulties  orienting ourselves and working safely. Also, the temperatures could fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius. With the windchill, it could feel even colder. I see further risks developing, which could result in injury through daily work on the ice.

4. How can the dangers of the mission be decreased?

I systematically went through many scenarios that could theoretically happen. In the field of worker safety, it is a common method to separate the risk from the people, for example through setting up safety buffers. This, however, will not be possible for this mission, because then we would not be able to do the expedition in the first place. We have to accept that there will be risks throughout the mission. However, through protective clothing and organizational measures, we can keep the risks to a minimum.

5. What kind of protective clothing is it?

As most of the work will be completed at the edge of the ice, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone may fall into the water. The usual expedition overalls would soak full of water within a minute or so  and would get so heavy that they  would pull a person down into the depths of the Artic Ocean. They wouldn’t stand a chance. Therefore, we got so-called flotation suits for every team member. Additionally, all expedition members that will be working close to the edge of the ice will have to wear harnesses and safety ropes.

6. What rules do the participants and researchers have to follow when they leave the ship?

Everyone will be required to sign out when they leave the ship, so we always know how many people are currently out on the ice. We will also watch that no one is working on the ice alone. We also plan to install an alarm system that is similar to the one at the Neumayer-Station: the system will trigger  an alarm on every computer and workstation if a logged-out person does not return to the ship within a certain amount of time. It is  important that everyone always wears the required clothing and equipment. Those who venture further away from the ship will be required to carry an emergency kit, including a tent, camping mat, cooker, and provisions. However, expedition members will only camp outside in an emergency.

7. You were at a safety training session in Finland. Did you come across new potential risks?

I was training with expedition members how best to use the safety equipment, and I also observed how they took samples on the ice: What are the procedures for taking samples ? How do they extract an ice core? And what does all of this mean from a safety point of view? And I did indeed come across new problems through my observations. For instance, if five people work closely on the ice around one ice hole, they cannot all use one safety line each. Otherwise, they would get entangled after a short while.

8. Polar bears will probably be the most unpredictable danger. How do you prepare to decrease this risk?

Indeed, this is an important topic for everyone. We will establish a semicircular area right in front of the ship. Within this area, the researchers and other expedition members will be allowed to move freely. Six polar bear experts will monitor this area constantly. If a group moves further away from the ship, they will need to have someone with a gun. This is why many of the participants will also complete firearms training before the expedition.

9. What will happen if a polar bear really shows up at the research site?

If a polar bear shows up a number of kilometers away, the researchers will usually carry on with their work and observe the polar bear’s behavior. Should the bear come closer, at a certain distance the work will be stopped and those close to the ship will go aboard. If they are further away, they will go to one of the assembly points. We will first try to scare the polar bear away using whistles, acoustic and light ammunition, or air horns. To avoid polar bears approaching unnoticed, we will install either tripwires that trigger acoustic or light ammunition, or electric wires. We will also have infrared systems on board and the polar bear experts will be equipped with night vision devices.

10. What do you do in medical emergencies?

For every segment of the trip we will have a doctor onboard. The ship is  equipped with a fully stocked operating room. We are also preparing  evacuation procedures, so that for medical emergencies, we would be able to transport someone out to the mainland via helicopter or icebreaker.

11. The expedition participants will be on the ship Polarstern for several months. What does that mean from a psychological point of view?

We assume that there may be times were the fog is too thick to leave the ship and members will be forced to stay on board for weeks or longer. Such an isolation, of course, will result in frustration. Knowing that you won’t just be able to leave, no matter what may be happening at home, will weigh heavily on everyone as well. Preparing to deal with everyone’s mental health is, therefore, just as important for me and my team as preparing the other safety measures that we talked about.

*hummock, a hump or ridge in an ice field.


Grote, Sebastian. “Eine Gewisse Grundgefahr Müssen Wir in Kauf Nehmen.” Helmholtz Perspektiven: Das Forschungsmagazin Der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft, no. 3, 2019, pp. 14–15.

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