Arctic climate change expedition: Wellington scientist escapes from world

A snow and ice physicist, Ruzica Dadic has been one of the few people travelling in 2020 and to join MOSAiC, the world’s largest international polar research expedition, for 3 months since July 2020.

Ruzica Dadic pulling the sled of equipment in the Arctic
Ruzica Dadic pulling the sled of equipment - Photo taken by Mario Hoppmann

It's hard to think of anywhere safer or more removed from coronavirus than the North Pole. But that's where Wellington scientist Dr Ruzica Dadic has spent part of her year. She returned to Wellington last month after three and a half months away from home – five weeks of which she was studying sea ice in the Arctic, known as ground zero for climate change.

From Auckland international airport in July - which was "just dead, like being in an old western movie" - to the multiple stints in quarantine, it was not a normal travel experience for Ruzica. But in the year of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, widespread protest around the world, and elections in New Zealand and the US, one of the strangest things was to be adrift from world affairs.

"We did keep up with it but it's quite detached when you're on the ship and working every day outside," she said.

"And it's just on in the background and you realise how bad it is. But just to be doing something you're totally focused on at that time, I think was really nice."

Ruzica spent her time on the icebreaker ship Polarstern with a polar expedition called MOSAiC – the largest of its kind in history, involving hundreds of researchers from 20 countries. Although MOSAiC was usually for researchers based closer to the Arctic, as a senior research fellow at the Victoria University of Wellington's Antarctic Research Centre, Ruzica had been invited to take part.

The ship was frozen into the ice to act as a base in the North Pole, while the scientists carried out their research. But melting ice had a real-time impact on their expedition.

"The idea was to stay in the same spot, but the ship melted out in July so they had to find a new sea ice flow and re-freeze it in," Ruzica said.

They had access to an email address and WhatsApp, but could not receive photos, videos or links, and there was a satellite phone she could use to speak to her family once a week. But there was no other internet. A small bulletin was put together by a team at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, which became the main source of news for the researchers.

"We had satellite communication but most of the satellite communication on the ship was to transfer data backups. Everyday they would compile a little mini newspaper, news snippets and print them so we could just read them on the ship."

During her time away, Auckland had a second outbreak of coronavirus, the pandemic was spiraling out of control around the world, and US election coverage was ramping up. But when Ruzica got the opportunity to speak with her family, she was more focused on news from her three young children, aged 3, 5 and 7.

"I would talk to them once a week, although talking with three small children on a satellite phone was not the easiest of tasks," she said.

While it had been hard to leave them for so long, it was important they saw their mum follow her passions, even during a global pandemic.

"My partner had researched in Antarctica and I had talked to my children about equality and how everyone can do everything," she said.

"I had talked to them about climate change so they understood why I was away and they were really really supportive of me going."

Ruzica's Arctic trip – complete with polar bear sightings – was also an engaging way to connect with children about climate change, she said.

"I would see random kids on the street from their school and they would go 'have you seen a polar bear?' so they had obviously talked about it and I thought that was really cool."

Although she could detach herself from issues of politics and pandemics, her expedition highlighted one of the biggest problems facing humankind: climate change. Her studies of sea ice in the Arctic had made her see the gaps in research in Antarctica – much closer to home - and she was trying to get funding to undergo similar expeditions.

"Ice is quite a big part of the climate system and it contributes to quite large uncertainties in global climate models and predictions … I think we need to address those uncertainties and be more confident in our predictions.

The study of Antarctic sea ice could have a direct impact on New Zealand's industries, she said.

"Sea ice in the Antarctic, it impacts the ocean and impacts the ecosystem … eventually down the line it will impact New Zealand and our fisheries."

Read more about this expedition here.