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Coronavirus Threat Delays Arctic Climate Researchers

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Around 300 researchers are slated to join the R.V. Polarstern on her MOSAiC mission over the course of 13 months. Stefan Hendricks / Alfred Wegener Institute

The coronavirus crisis has spread far and wide, indiscriminately affecting civilians, celebrities, sports stars and politicians and touching all parts of society. Now, the pandemic is impacting scientists on a large research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean, delaying critical climate research.


The researchers are part of the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) project, which is one of the largest-ever research missions to the polar region.

The scientists use the German research vessel Polarstern, which they intentionally froze into Arctic sea ice last October, as their home base. By trapping the ship – and themselves – in floating ice for over a year, the scientists created a "drifting polar-research laboratory" from which they hope to get a closer look at the Arctic's rapidly changing climate, reported Nature as the expedition began. The researchers and technicians sample the ice, atmosphere and ocean to better understand the intricate Arctic climate and how it affects global climate.

Throughout the 13-month study, 600 people from 19 countries will rotate onto the ship via other icebreakers and aircraft.

While the crew on the ship are currently infection-free, a team member slated to join the expedition this month tested positive for the virus right before departing for the field.

The infected individual attended a pre-expedition workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany on March 5 with other members from the aircraft team. MOSAiC chief scientist Markus Rex told Nature that 20 other team members who had contact with the person are being quarantined for 14 days in their homes by German health agencies. Until the quarantine is lifted, the airborne component of the expedition will be delayed and postponed for the safety of those onboard the ship.

"We don't want any exposure out there at the Polarstern," mission co-coordinator Matthew Shupe told The New York Times. As such, all team members scheduled to join MOSAiC are tested twice – two weeks before leaving their homes and once before leaving for the ship. This testing protocol uncovered the infection before it reached the field.

Lynne Talley, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explained the risk. Given the close quarters on the ship and the virus's long incubation time, keeping the virus from getting on the ship is critical. Talley told Nature, "Suppose someone inadvertently does end up on the ship with a virus. It would just pretty much take the entire ship."

Talley's warning comes on the heels of two major coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships – the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan last month, and the Grand Princess, which was held offshore March 4 to 9 in northern California.

Shupe told Nature that the postponement should only minimally disrupt MOSAiC's scientific objectives. Assuming the quarantine is lifted and no others test positive, "the plan is to carry forward with the activities," he said to The New York Times. Shupe also confirmed that a separate airborne unit scheduled for April to bring fresh supplies and new researchers remains unchanged. "That part, so far, is on target."

Shupe did caution that further delays would "shrink the window for the airborne mission" and worried about future complications for the expedition as the pandemic continues to intensify around the world.

Setup of the MOSAiC ice camp in front of RV Polarstern during leg 1 of the expedition on Oct. 11, 2019. Stefan Hendricks / Alfred Wegener Institute

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