Novel coronavirus buffets largest Arctic expedition in history

The multinational team on the biggest Arctic research mission ever undertaken was prepared for problems from polar bear attacks to major snowstorms or even issues with building a runway on ice.

This handout picture released by the U.S. Navy on May 8, 2019 shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) while conducting a replenishment-at-sea with the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 9), while MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the “Nightdippers” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 5, transfer stores between the ships. Photo:AFP

But never did they imagine that a pandemic might sweep across the world, posing a threat to their mission.

“We have many, many different scenarios, alternative plans in store,” Markus Rex, who leads the MOSAIC mission, told AFP by phone on his way to Spitsbergen, the main island on the archipelago of Svalbard. “But to have a global pandemic of this scale, that was something we did not expect… We had to develop new plans very quickly.”

With borders slamming shut as governments sought to limit transmission of the coronavirus, the team out on the mission was all but cut off.

A team had been due to be flown in April to relieve the scientists on the ice, but the plan had to be rethought.

After two months of delay, a new crew is finally en route to Spitsbergen on two vessels, which will then meet up with the icebreaker Polarstern to allow the newcomers to disembark and the current team to come onboard.

Among the group heading out to the field is mission chief Rex himself, a climatologist and physicist.

The 390-day expedition began in September, with the icebreaker belonging to Germany‘s Alfred Wegener polar and marine institute departing to great fanfare from Norway.

The mission aims to study the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, ecosystem and natural processes – looking to build a picture of how climate change is affecting the region and the entire world.

Some 600 experts are involved in the biggest research project on the Arctic.

At the end of February, the icebreaker‘s drift took it to just 156 kilometers from the North Pole – never before had a ship ventured so far north during the Arctic winter.

Experts from about a dozen countries were meant to fly to the Polarstern from Svalbard in April. But the closure of borders had grounded available planes.

After several hurdles, the team decided to bring the scientists as well as supplies by research ships to Spitsbergen.

The Polarstern will interrupt its research for several weeks to pick up the new crew. But figuring out the logistics of the complicated personnel transfer was one thing, “our second difficulty: Ensure that the virus does not get into the expedition,” said Rex.

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