Mar 11

Coronavirus Crisis Hits Ice-Locked Arctic Research Expedition

The coronavirus outbreak has reached the Arctic and is imperiling a massive international scientific project after a team member tested positive for the virus.

The mission, called MOSAiC, is operating from the German research vessel Polarstern, which has been intentionally frozen in Arctic sea ice since last October. From this ice-encrusted platform, a rotating cast of scientists and technicians is sampling the ice, atmosphere, and ocean in an attempt to understand the intricacies of the rapidly changing Arctic climate.

The team member who contracted the virus works on the airborne component of the expedition — a key part that has now been delayed to protect those on board the ship. This part of the mission will use scientific aircraft to take measurements around Polarstern to provide context for those taken at the ship.

About 20 members of the aircraft team are now quarantined in their homes under the direction of the German health agencies, says Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. Rex is the chief scientist of the MOSAiC mission.

Close quarters

To minimize the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, all team members who are scheduled to join MOSAiC — which stands for Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate — are tested for coronavirus before departing their homes for Svalbard, Norway, from where they leave for the ship. There, they are tested a second time before they are allowed to depart. The infected individual had been at a workshop in Bremerhaven on 5 March with other aircraft members; the first round of testing was done as part of this meeting.