Ottawa Citizen - - Np -

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.”

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