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Pandemic Delays Return Of Arctic Researchers

The German icebreaker Polarstern is moored to a piece of ice, drifting for a year, as scientists study the warming Arctic.
The German icebreaker Polarstern is moored to a piece of ice, drifting for a year, as scientists study the warming Arctic.

A massive, year-long science expedition currently underway on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean is having to significantly alter its plans due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists who have been on the ship since — in their own form of isolation at the top of the world — were supposed to be picked up by aircraft in early April, with different personnel rotating in. But with travel and other virus-related restrictions, they may now have to remain in the ice until June, essentially doubling their shift. Five such rotations were planned for the expedition over the course of the year.

"The flights were planned to go through Longyearbyen, on Svalbard, and right now all non-residents have been asked to leave Svalbard," says expedition coordinator Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Shupe says the default plan is for the team on the ice to come home on the exchange that was already scheduled for June, though other options are being considered to get them back sooner.

"The people who are out there on site right now, they're nervous," he says. "They'd like to get home to their families, and so we're trying to devise plans that will enable that."

The expedition — known as the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC — is an international effort spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute to study Arctic climate change.

Shupe says the ship has enough food and fuel to last until the next planned transfer, and organizers do not believe anyone on board is infected with the coronavirus.

To insure the virus does not spread to the ship, the next rotation of incoming MOSAiC participants will be quarantined for 14 days, and subject to multiple tests before they begin their journey out to the icebreaker.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.