Germany’s interest in the polar regions did not begin with the realization of how important the Arctic and Antarctic are for global cycles in the ocean and the atmosphere. In fact, it was German explorers, and soon female explorers, who significantly shaped the exploration of the northern and southern hemispheres, and many geographical points bear their names. But in the last 40 years it was not a person, but a ship whose name shines as brightly in the sky of polar research as its namesake: the research icebreaker “Polarstern” (engl. Polar Star).
When the new ship of German polar research with the resonant name Polarstern entered service on December 9, 1982, probably no one thought that the blue and white icebreaker with the distinctive red cranes would one day be not just a ship, but a worldwide celebrity. Forty years and more than 130 expedition and supply voyages with about 3.5 million kilometers under the keel later, Polarstern has become an indispensable part of international polar research. Thousands of scientists have lived on her for weeks or even months at a time, taking their measurements with her help in the depths of the Arctic and Southern Oceans, flying to far-flung locations in the ship’s own helicopters, or making sea ice measurements in her shadow. And the ship is not at all tired after all this time. It is currently located near South Georgia and is serving as a research platform for a major research project. Cruise leader Professor Sabine Kasten says about the anniversary: “Together with the crew of Reederei Laeisz around Captain Moritz Langhinrichs and the scientific cruise participants we celebrate 40 years of Polarstern with a festive reception and get-together in the so-called Blue Salon of the ship.”
The foundation stone for a new ice-suitable ship that would supply the German polar stations in Antarctica and also serve as a floating research platform for scientists came in 1978 as a result of a statement made by Helmut Grunenberg, then a member of the German parliament in Bremerhaven, who asked Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, “Do we want a jam bucket or a solid, presentable ship for Antarctic research?”, thereby writing history. This led to the German government drastically increasing the funds and the planned supply ship became a real research icebreaker. The icebreaker was built by a consortium of Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft in Kiel and Werft Nobiskrug in Rendsburg. The keel was laid on September 22, 1981, and Polarstern was able to enter service just 14 months later.
Whether it was supply runs for Antarctic stations, where everything from containers to bulldozers had to be packed onto a 20-meter-high ice shelf, or research cruises in the wildest and windiest parts of the oceans, the ship was perfectly equipped for all tasks in the polar regions. The highlight of her career was certainly her time as a floating platform in the Arctic Ocean, where Polarstern was the home and laboratory for more than 400 scientists during the MOSAiC expedition and helped to take polar research to new heights. And although her time is slowly coming to an end and, if all goes according to plan, she will be replaced by her successor Polarstern II from 2027 onwards, one thing remains quite certain: like her namesake star, she will continue to shine in the polar research sky after that.
We at PolarJournal also say “Happy Anniversary, Polarstern” and thank you for 40 years of exciting stories and your tireless efforts in the areas we love as well.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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