Year-Long Arctic Research Expedition Breaks Quarantine to Resupply

Way back in September of last year—which actually feels like a lifetime ago at this point—I told you about the MOSAIC Expedition, which is made up of a group of researchers who planned to spend a full year in the Arctic studying the effects of climate change on the environment there. The plan was for the scientists to take a ship called the Polarstern and intentionally get it stuck in the ice, then let it drift with the tides for a 12 month period, gathering important climate data as they went. At the time, this was viewed as an important long-term project to help us get a better understanding of how global warming was changing the polar regions of our planet. But now, the schedule for that expedition has been thrown into disarray thanks to the coronavirus, forcing the ship to break quarantine in an effort to resupply and shift personnel.

Originally, the idea was that once the Polarstern was locked in ice, it would see a rotating group of scientists coming and going from the vessel ever few months. That way, no one was stuck aboard the ship for the entire time and more researchers would get a chance to collect their data. But once the coronavirus began to spread, this became more difficult, particularly when members of the team tested positive for COVID-19 and had to go into isolation. Since that time, getting supplies and new crew members to the ship have been a challenge, as expedition leaders balance how to have contact with the outside world, while still remaining safe and healthy in the Arctic as well.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that the MOSAIC Expedition will continue as planned, with an end-date still set for October of this year. But, thanks to a lockdown on travel on a global level, the third planned crew exchange didn’t happen as it should have. That has also meant that the ship hasn’t received any resupplies for awhile either. This has prompted the team to take the unexpected step to break free from the ice and move south to Spitsbergen in Norway where the Polarstern will now receive an aerial resupply. This does provide a small chance of exposure to the virus, although everyone involved in the operation is going to great lengths to ensure the safety of the ship’s crew. So far, no one onboard the ship has been exposed to COVID-19 and if the research mission is to be successful, that will have to continue to be the case. That said, the additional supplies are also necessary as the members of the expedition move into the second phase of their research.

In order to continue the research as planned, a group of scientists will actually set up a camp on a polar ice floe. This will allow them to continue to collect data, and stay safe from the coronavirus, while the Polarstern heads south to pick up supplies. The ship will then return to collect them once it has completed its mission, allowing the original research operation to continue as best it can. The details of the operation were revealed via the team leader a few days back, charting the course for MOSAIC over the next few weeks.

While the research that the team is doing is incredibly important for helping us understand climate change, it also has to be quite strange for them to receive news of the virus from back home. Most didn’t expect to be aboard the Polarstern for more than a two-month shift, but that may not be the case now. Bringing any of these researchers back will require a carefully set out plan, but more importantly will be figuring out out to rotate any new crew members back onboard. These strange times have definitely made an already unique and challenging expedition even more difficult. This is not unlike sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station at the moment.

Hopefully all goes well during the supply transfer and everyone stays healthy and safe in the interim.

Kraig Becker

2 thoughts on “Year-Long Arctic Research Expedition Breaks Quarantine to Resupply”

  1. I thought (from reading about Shackelton) that an ice bound ship ended up getting crushed… Forgive my ignorance but why is that not happening here? Doesn’t the ice ‘grow’ with winter? Thank you!

    • The “Polarstern” is an icebreaker, designed to withstand those pressures. The Endurance didn’t have the same level of technology and build-quality more than a hundred years ago.

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