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On their way into the Arctic and to the Orkney Islands

Research Vessels Polarstern and Heincke start their expeditions.

Research icebreaker Polarstern of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research of the Helmholtz Association puts out to the Arctic on June 12th after three weeks in the dockyards.

The expedition of four months length is divided into three stages and leads via the Greenland Sea to Spitsbergen and up to the Fram Strait. The journey through the Northwest Passage up to the East Siberian Sea is planned as the third stage. Two days earlier, on June 10th, the research vessel Heincke leaves the island of Helgoland towards the Orkney Islands. Research is centred on marine biological investigations in the North Atlantic.

The emphasis of research of the first part of Polarstern's journey are oceanographic readings in the Greenland Sea. The assignments within the framework of the International Polar Year are directed by Dr. Gereon Budéus, Oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute. They shall give new insights into the effects of climate change. He and his colleagues have developed special moorings which submerge and resurface once a day from 100 meters water depth to the ground in 3700 meters.

They measure temperature and salt content of the water, the most important values to identify bodies of water and patterns of currents. These moorings have been working for several years and will now be recovered to read the recorded data, and bring out new moorings. Investigations so far show that a special supply of fresh water has changed the structure of the body of water in the basin of the Greenland Sea. This observation is unique worldwide and the effects of these changes are to be investigated.

Another project is concerned with the movement of the Greenlandic mainland. Scientists from the University of Dresden measure to which extent the land raises while the weight bearing down on it decreases due to the melting of its glaciers. They employ high-resolution GPS receiver which are deployed during the first and second stage of the journey on Greenland to detect movement rates of the earth crust. To ensure that they can measure sufficiently, the receivers are only secured during the second stage of the journey.

The second stage of the journey from July 4th to August 10th leads from Spitsbergen to Reykjavik (Iceland), under the direction of Prof. Dr. Gerhard Kattner, chemist at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Here, everything revolves around the influence of climate change on the polar regions, too. The production of methane, a climate-relevant atmospheric gas, is determined. Scientists clarify the origin of the bodies of water near Greenland by means of analysing nutrient salt concentrations. Biological and oceanographic long-term studies are continued at the so-called "AWI-Hausgarten", which regularly help to understand how living beings react to a shifting ice edge since 1999.

If ice conditions allow, the third and last stage of the voyage leads, beginning August 21st, from Reykjavik through the Northwest Passage into the East Siberian Sea. Geoscientists around cruise leader Dr. Wilfried Jokat want to examine the tectonic development at the interface of the undersea ridge "Mendeleev Ridge" with the continental shelf of the East Siberian Shelf. Furthermore, the researchers want to determine temperature conditions after the last ice age, or even in the Mesozoic, by analysing sediments lying on the seabed. The Polarstern returns via the Northeast Passage to its port of registry, Bremerhaven, where it is expected back on October 12th.

Research vessel Heincke will set off from Helgoland to the Orkney Islands in the North Atlantic on June 10th to conduct marine biological examinations. The twelve scientists on board will focus on cnidaria, a well-known example of which are jellyfish. Cnideria possess, for defensive purposes and for ingestion of food, so-called cnidoblasts, which inject highly efficient toxins into their prey by means of a highly pressurised small harpoon. The toxins of some species can cause allergic dermal reactions, in some cases even death through paralysis of the breathing apparatus, in humans. The origin of the chemical composition of these toxins will be investigated in collaboration with the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht. Furthermore, immigrant species from warmer habitats are at the centre of the researchers' attention. Heincke is expected back in Helgoland on July 3rd.

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and in oceans of mid and high latitudes. The AWI coordinates polar research in Germany, and provides important infrastructure, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctic, for international science organisations. The AWI is one of 15 research centres of the 'Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft' (Helmholtz Association), the largest scientific organisation in Germany.

In the International Polar Year 2007/2008 more than 50,000 scientists from over 60 countries investigate the polar regions. It is their aim to investigate the role of the Arctic and the Antarctic with regard to the Earth's climate and ecosystems. Germany has very good preconditions for research in the Arctic and in the Antarctic, having the worldwide most efficient research icebreaker Polarstern, several polar stations and two polar aircraft. In particular, Germany can contribute to the key issues: polar regions and climate change, shifting continents, venture into unknown regions, and development of innovative technologies.

Margarete Pauls | idw
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