West Grand graduate: Dr. Michael Gallagher in Arctic

photos by Michael Gallagher | The beautiful landscapes of the Arctic. (Above) Two ships in the distance. (Below) Twilight by snowmobile.
photos by Michael Gallagher | The beautiful landscapes of the Arctic. (Above) Two ships in the distance. (Below) Twilight by snowmobile.

by Marissa Lorenzby Marissa Lorenz

In September of last year, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or MOSAiC project set out on a 400-foot German icebreaker, the Research Vessel Polarstern, towards the coast of Siberia to begin the “first year-round expedition into the central Arctic exploring the Arctic climate system– the largest polar expedition ever.” The ship moored to an ice-floe, becoming trapped in the ice, and crews began set-up of an ice-camp, a landing strip, and a “distributed network” of several research and measuring stations within a 40-mile radius. The goal? To gather data over the next year, as they travel across the Arctic with the natural ice drift, in order to better understand the Arctic climate system and how to represent it in global climate models and, ultimately, to “provide a more robust scientific basis for policy decisions on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and for setting up a framework for managing Arctic development sustainably.”

The project has a total budget of over $150 million and was designed by an international consortium of “leading polar research institutions, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research,” in Bremerhaven, Germany. By the end, it will employ the help of four other ice-breakers from three different countries, at least three research aircraft, and long-distance helicopters. Over the course of several staff rotations, the RV Polarstern will drift an average of 7 kilometers a day, travel over 2,500 Km of the Arctic Ocean, and pass within 200 Km of the geographic North Pole. It will take measurements up to 35,000-meter altitudes and 4,000-meters below the surface of the ice. In all, it involves the cooperation of 20 countries, 600 experts, and 300 support individuals from around the world, including Kremmling native, Dr. Michael Gallagher.

Gallagher is a graduate of West Grand High School and son of retired teacher Rhea Gallagher. He holds advanced degrees in Computer Science and Engineering Physics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He currently works in the field of climate science at CIRES/NOAA in Boulder but has most recently been “on an extended collaborative mission in France.” Most recently, that is, until he joined the second leg of the MOSAiC expedition in mid-December.

A scheduled member of the atmospheric research crew during the second and fifth legs of the RV Polarstern’s journey, Gallagher is responsible for “science and hardware coalescence,” looking at “atmospheric processes, surface energy budget, and climate.” Drifting in the ocean thousands of miles away, Michael was kind enough to offer photographs and a written interview, explaining and sharing his experience with his home-town Kremmling community.

The Polarstern is a 400 foot German icebreaker being used to help gather data on the data on the Arctic's natural ice drift. | photo by Michael Gallagher
The Polarstern is a 400 foot German icebreaker being used to help gather data on the data on the Arctic’s natural ice drift. | photo by Michael Gallagher

Gazette: How did you become a part of the MOSAiC team & project?

Gallagher: There are a lot of people from Colorado involved in the project. Matthew Shupe [MOSAiC co-coordinator from CIRES/NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder] has been one of the primary coordinators of the expedition for the last ten years and he is based out of Colorado. Right now there are 10 people from Colorado working out in the Arctic on MOSAiC. I became part of MOSAiC because of my previous work with this group of people and because my work before was closely tied to the goals of the project. It also probably helped that I spent the first 18 years of my life in Kremmling winters and am pretty used to working in the cold with frozen fingers.

Gazette: I understand that you will be on board for two legs of the journey. What time periods are those?

Gallagher: Well, this question is more relevant in the last weeks. I was scheduled for “leg 2,” from December-February 15th and “leg 5” from the beginning of June to mid-August. I’m still (as of March 5th) near the North pole though because our exchange was delayed three weeks… but hopefully we’ll be leaving soon! And even better, maybe I’ll be home soon! I guess a month is ‘soon’ when you’re stuck in the Arctic.

Gazette: Can you explain some of the day-to-day activities on board? Your day-to-day activities?

Gallagher: For me, the day-to-day activities are constantly changing. Sometimes I’m rebuilding instruments on board the ship and sometimes I’m looking at data to make sure everything is working well. Other days I’m shoveling snow to make sure we can still get into our warming hut. I’ve probably shoveled more snow here than I have done anything else, every day there is a new snow drift in some terrible place. Yesterday I spent a few hours digging out a 5 foot drift that had covered our emergency generators. Some days are spent preparing and executing helicopter travel plans so that I can take care of the ‘remote sites’, locations 20+ miles away from the ship where we are taking measurements.
Honestly, no two days have ever really looked alike and I think that’s by far the best part of being out here. I think the only thing that’s the same every day is the coffee and cake every day at 3:30 and the constant darkness.

Working in the Arctic is not easy with constant dark and freezing temperatures. (Above) Clearing the way (Below) Crane and hook. | photos by Michael Gallagher
Working in the Arctic is not easy with constant dark and freezing temperatures. (Above) Clearing the way (Below) Crane and hook. | photos by Michael Gallagher

Gazette: What is “surface energy budget”?

Gallagher: “Surface energy budget” is just a fancy science buzzword for keeping track of where energy comes from and goes to. One of the primary goals of MOSAiC is to better understand how this works in the Arctic, a place where we have very few measurements. The surface energy budget includes how much energy is brought in by sunlight, how much energy is reflected by the snow, how much energy makes it into the sea ice and eventually the ocean, and so much more. The surface energy budget drives our weather and creates our ecosystems, and it is critical that we understand the detailed role it plays in the Arctic.

Gazette: What has been most surprising so far?

Gallagher: Just how alive sea ice is! When you’re a kid and you think of the north pole you think of this cold frozen-white land. It’s definitely frozen and it’s definitely white, but it’s nothing like land. The ice is always shifting and the landscape is always changing. Sometimes the ice drifts apart and you’re left with large pieces of open ocean that look like rivers, called ‘leads’. Other times ice floes collide and form large ridges of piled, broken, and crushed ice that can extend for miles. How quickly and how often things change here has been really incredible to see.

Gazette: What is most tedious/frustrating?

Gallagher: The constant darkness can be pretty frustrating. I’ve done a lot of things in the cold but the darkness makes everything you want to do twice as difficult. Want to remove the screws in the snowmobile panel? It’s dark and your headlamp just died because it’s cold and now you have to get the flashlight out of your pocket and that takes 15 minutes because it’s under five layers of clothes. We always joke that everything takes ten times as long in the Arctic and it’s really frustrating when things move slowly. Sometimes I caught myself thinking “I’ll just do this in the morning when it’s light again”… hah! But the day never comes, or at least it takes a few months.

Gazette: What is the experience of collaboration/camaraderie on board the vessel?

Gallagher: The camaraderie is pretty strong. There’s 60 people living, working, and eating together on a small boat. You have to get along and working in the freezing cold dark makes it even more important. There is no time to argue when you’re 10 miles away by snowmobile and you’re navigating through the dark and the ice ridges. You work hard and everyone relies on each other.

Gazette: What would you most want to share about the expedition/the hoped for outcomes?

Gallagher: I think I would like to emphasize just how much of a collaboration it is to accomplish something like this. There’s a huge group of people with all different skillsets here that are required to make it happen. There are machine mechanics who take care of the snowmobiles and other machines like the “piston bully”, there are engine room technicians who make sure the ship is constantly providing power, there are electricians who help build and rebuild experiments, there are rifle specialists who take care of the guns and safety for polar bear protection, there are scientists who design and operate the instruments, and there are hundreds of other people who have put a lot of their lives into making this happen. I think that’s something special and my hope is that there will be valuable information about the Arctic to study for decades to come.

Gazette: What is something interesting/delightful that you have learned? (about research, collaboration, yourself)

Gallagher: Living on a small boat with 60 people I would say I’ve probably learned more about myself than I have about the work that I do. But for the work, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that persistence is so extremely important. Too cold to finish the job? Get warm and try again later. Something broken for 8 days? Try again on the 9th day. Did the ship take 5 weeks to come
get you? Well, at least it made it!

Gazette: Is there anything else important you’d like to share?

Gallagher: I wanted to add something actually. Maybe it’s good to say something about how important community scholarships are? I received several scholarships from local organizations and I know I probably would have never finished college without it. If you could mention something like this, or we could squeeze something similar in, that would be great.

At the time of interview, Gallagher was leaving the RV Polarstern to travel back to “civilization” on the Russian ice-breaker Dranitsyn. He is still “sitting out in the Arctic ocean” at the time of publication. In the meantime, the expedition itself is facing challenges of the coronavirus epidemic. On Monday, MOSAiC organizers cancelled a series of research flights, following travel restrictions imposed by the Norwegian government. Late last week, one member of that team scheduled to fly research missions this month tested positive for the COVID-19. A team of about 20 people from the expedition is being quarantined in Germany, though those who have been on-board the drifting vessel have had no exposure. There are no indications that the worldwide pandemic will otherwise interrupt planned activities of the expedition at this time.

To learn more about the MOSAiC expedition, visit its English website at mosaic-expedition.org. Daily updates are given at follow.mosaic-expedition. org. And you can see Michael discuss his involvement at mosaic.colorado. edu/people/michael-gallagher.