Stephanie Fiedler, PhD

Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg

An alarming sound rings through the ice-cold air as a giant crane lifts my heavy boxes. I quickly search for a way through the maze of steep staircases. My adventure on the German research vessel “Polarstern” has just begun in Bremerhaven. At the pile deck, I receive and start unpacking the valuable freight of the boxes, our brand new cloud cameras. I will operate them during the expedition over the Atlantic Ocean. The expedition takes an entire month – a long time for a newbie to ocean traveling like me. Even more reasons for excitement are the measurements during the journey. The cameras take photos of clouds in true and false-color which should help us to better understand clouds. It feels like being a detective, as the false-color camera are of the same type as those operated to witness burglars that enter private property at night.

My colleagues and I set up the instruments at the railing while two helicopters approach with roaring noise. It is quite a maneuver to land them on the comparably small rear of the vessel. These are one of the last important equipment that is needed to find a way through the Antarctic ice shelf long after I would have disembarked the vessel in Cape Town, South Africa. For now, the helicopters disappear in their hanger, and increasing amounts of cargo to be delivered to Antarctica are loaded by the crew.


“Every day holds a new and often unforeseeable experience.”


New faces have arrived in the meantime, including my colleague who I will share the surprisingly spacious room with a fully equipped bathroom, a double decker bed, sofa and desk. We teach graduate students that competed to join the summer school on the vessel. It soon becomes clear that it will be cozy during our cruise with roughly fifty students and teachers, in addition to fifty crew members. That is a number of people that requires some organizational skills. Of course this is not a problem for the staff. We quickly adjust to their sharp time schedule for the meals and plenty of rules, pledged to us by our well-organized cruise leader in the daily evening meetings.

After settling in and shaking first hands, we jump right into our work. It does not take long to find a daily routine of data processing and checking on the instruments. Every time the sun glimpses through the clouds, I run outdoors to measure the light intensity with another hand-held instrument. It gives a hint on the number of tiny particles floating in the air, aerosols. Just like clouds, aerosols are rarely recorded over remote ocean regions, and believed to be one of the last puzzle pieces to understand the changing climate. Equipped with a total of four of those sun-photometers, students get some hands-on lessons on using them as part of our remote sensing module. Clearly, teaching does not have to be dry at all. This is especially the case when they are dealing with ocean measurements, including a view of fish and octopus that swirl in the water at night. Night shifts are not uncommon for students as the oceanographers take their measurements at well-planned locations where the vessel stops so that the scientists can lower equipment of several hundred kilograms. Such measurements during full speed are not done due to the high risk of damage.


“The wobbly journey is a good reminder to maintain a flexible mind.”


You might think it gets boring to work day after day without a weekend or change in routine. Daily life on a research vessel is indeed very different from anything else. Every day holds a new and often unforeseeable experience. One day you look over the side of the vessel and spot flying fish. Another day you may open doors to giant engines to unlock the secrets of the permanent energy supply or see a dolphin school happily jumping through the waves. Each day is an adventure.

Before I left home, I felt like I would probably need lots of reading material. However, I have not touched a single book during my entire time onboard. Instead, I took on other activities in my spare free time. One of my favorite activities was the regular yoga session on the deck. I was happy that my roommate was a fully professional yoga trainer. What a fantastic challenge it was to do sun and moon salutations on a wobbly ship with gusty head winds. If the weather turns bad, we move to the fitness room in the basement. It is not quite as much fun as yoga on deck, but when you train on the rowing machine and close your eyes, it almost feels like being directly on the water.

As we travel southwards, the weather changes drastically, giving us fantastic days with plenty of sunshine instead of stormy cold seas. Soon it is only one week left to go until we reach Cape Town. I cannot believe how fast time flies. I have come a long way in travel distance, collecting scientific data, and gaining unforgettable personal experience. The cloud imagers were reliably operated throughout the journey. This is good news for the instrument developers and data users at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. NASA has received my almost daily measurements from the sun-photometers while I was on the open ocean. Upon checking the quality, my data was uploaded to a public database within days. Just remember how long it took scientists at the time of Charles Darwin to get their observations home and published. Truly, scientists today face less struggle which is one of the great gains of our modern connectivity.

I am sure my time on “Polarstern” will have a lasting impression on me. Nothing can beat to see and feel the ever-changing winds, aerosols and clouds, that I would otherwise miss sitting in an office at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. The wobbly journey is a good reminder to maintain a flexible mind with thoughts in motion even when the research takes place at a stable desk again.

A glimpse on my moving office on the research vessel “Polarstern”. The screens show the measurements of the cloud imagers that are operating at the railing on the pile deck.  Two of many beautiful weather situations on the way southwards from Bremerhaven to Cape Town.

Photos from the Trip 

An expedition across the Atlantic Ocean
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  2. […] Germany, to Cape Town, South Africa in 2016, took us several weeks to complete. I wrote my story about the first adventures on a research vessel that has been published online by […]

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