All aboard the European Research Icebreaker, Aurora Borealis

Ten European nations have accepted an invitation to jump aboard what will be the most advanced polar research vessel that the world has ever seen when it sets sail in 2014, the brainchild of
the European Science Federation (ESF), the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Maritime Research in Germany and the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education, the European Research
Icebreaker, Aurora Borealis, will aim to be the first state-of-the-art research vessel to explore and conquer the Arctic Ocean.

The project currently brings together 16 institutions, funding agencies and companies from 10 European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway,
Romania and Russia). The ESF hopes to attract more interested nations for its metaphorical voyage into unknown waters.

‘We do not have a European flag at the moment so one nation has to be responsible. And if it is internationally owned, you can imagine the difficulty,’ says Nicole Biebow, manager of the
project, and a scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute. ‘We have to agree where this ship should have its home port. And what happens if there is an accident? Who is responsible if you have
an oil spill on the ice, for instance?’

In spite of the critical role of the Arctic Ocean in climate change evolution, it remains a mystery as no ship in the world has ever been able to go to the centre of this sub-basin.

This lack of data represents one of the largest gaps of information in modern Earth Science, according to the European Polar Board. The Board intends to have the new icebreaker equipped with
drilling capabilities to pound through the ice pack, in northern or southern waters, and then to drill through 1,000 metres of the deep ocean floor, while floating precisely on a station above
5,000 metres of sea and sea ice.

With over 60 scientists from around Europe, the Aurora Borealis will also enable data collection and the probing of the environment at times when the Arctic region has never been visited
(mainly during late autumn, winter and early spring). In this way, it could answer questions about the geological history of the Arctic Ocean, whilst other instruments measure the transport of
contaminants through the air, water and ice.

The diesel-electric ship will be equipped with two ‘moon pools’ that open onto the oceans: one for the drilling crew, and one for biologists who will use remote instruments and submersibles to
explore every aspect of life below the icepack. This includes the strange microbial assortment that preserves life through the polar night and then triggers an explosion of productivity with
the first rays of the sun each spring.

Whilst the design and preparation of Aurora Borealis will continue until 2011, builders are expected to start assembling the hull in 2012, so it could be cruising the oceans from 2014. It could
then begin answering some of the great questions of ocean science that have gone unanswered for the next 40 years.

The European Commission has identified the Aurora Borealis project for the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap. The Commission found that it reached the highest
scientific priority for developing this large-scale infrastructure for basic research in the Europe Research Area (ERA).

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