SHOCK FOR ISOLATED SCIENTISTS.
When 43 scientists set sail for the North Pole in early December, no one had heard of the novel coronavirus. As case numbers on land multiplied, the researchers’ vessel drifted with the Arctic sea ice, out of reach by video chat or phone.
After four months in neartotal isolation, the scientists are returning to a world transformed. Their universities are closed. Their colleagues are sick. And, they have no place to land.
The port where they’d planned to dock, Tromso in northern Norway, is now closed to them, as Norway has stringent restrictions on international travellers. Expedition leaders are scrambling to find a port willing to accept the group and allow them to board flights to the eight countries they call home.
“It’s an immense challenge,” said Markus Rex, leader of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Change (MOSAiC).
The year-long, US$150 million project, during which a rotating cast of 300 scientists would take turns on the icebound research vessel Polarstern, is the largest-ever Arctic research expedition and had been planned for more than a decade.
The 43 scientists, on the January-through-February rotation, left the Polarstern in early March aboard a Russian icebreaker.
An additional 54 researchers, who constitute the Marchthrough-April leg, are on board the Polarstern. There will be three more crew changes from now to September, when the project ends.
That was the plan. But of all the contingencies considered during MOSAiC’s planning process, a deadly pandemic was not among them.
The organizers’ biggest concern now is preventing the virus from reaching the Polarstern, where it could wreak havoc. The ship has an isolation ward and a doctor, but rescue would take at least three weeks to reach the ship by boat, and evacuation by air depends on polar weather conditions.
Though the 43 haven’t been on land since December, a week ago the Russian vessel rendezvoused with another icebreaker to pick up fuel, and Norway fears this might have brought the virus on board.
Rex said the ship has enough fuel to reach another European port. But he also must find a new point of departure for the next rotation of researchers flying in from all over the world in April.
The current crew of the Polarstern has enough food and fuel to last several months and will remain there until restrictions ease or replacements can reach them.
“The whole thing makes me nervous,” said Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo. “I put my heart into this for more than a decade. … I can very much see pathways where this virus makes it extremely difficult for us to complete our mission.”