Under the spell of the ice and cold on an Arctic expedition

During weeks on a research vessel drifting with an ice floe in the polar night, a photographer discovers profound beauty—and her own limitations.

Polar bear guard Trude Hohle checks for a safe path across the sea ice during a 2019 scientific expedition in the Arctic Ocean.

The icebreaker Polarstern floated on the transpolar drift stream, frozen in sea ice, for nearly a year. On board were about a hundred scientists and crew members who were braving the polar winter to study climate change in the Arctic. I was there too, photographing the first leg of the MOSAiC expedition—the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. It was the longest and largest Arctic expedition in history and, for me, a gift from the universe.

Four years earlier I’d fallen under the spell of the ice and cold on my first Arctic assignment. When I returned home, I vowed to devote my photography to the fragile polar environment that had mesmerized me. Shortly afterward I heard about MOSAiC and knew I had to go.

By the time the Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, Norway, on September 20, 2019, I’d been on nine other polar expeditions. MOSAiC was different. For one thing, the first few legs took place during the long polar night. For another, help was very far away. The ship, intentionally trapped in an ice floe, drifted close to the North Pole during winter, when the ice was thickest. If anything had gone wrong, it would have taken two or three weeks for help to arrive and then two or three more weeks to return to human habitation. We had to be prepared to handle everything ourselves—from fire to falling into frigid water to heart attacks. (Toothaches were dealt with preemptively: I was told to have my wisdom teeth removed before the trip.)

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