Coronavirus Interrupts, but Doesn’t End, an Arctic Research Expedition

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With a scheduled mission to resupply a research icebreaker in the remote frozen Arctic scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic, organizers have devised a new plan to continue the yearlong expedition studying climate change in the region.

The proposal involves sacrificing some of the expedition’s data gathering, as the ship will have to leave the ice it has been drifting with since October to rendezvous with two resupply ships in ice-free waters.

After picking up fuel and other supplies, and swapping its current contingent of scientists and crew for new personnel, the ship, the Polarstern, will return to the ice. The expedition, called Mosaic (for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) is still expected to end as planned in mid-October, with the ship drifting out of the ice off the east coast of Greenland.

Since it deliberately became frozen in place in the Central Arctic north of Siberia, the Polarstern has been collecting data nearly continuously on the ice, atmosphere, clouds and ocean as it drifted first close to the North Pole and then to the southwest.

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Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist and the expedition leader, said that the resupply mission, which will begin in mid-May, will cause about a three-week gap in most data gathering, as many of the instruments will be dismantled. “For a yearlong mission, that’s not too traumatic,” he said in a telephone interview from Bremerhaven, Germany.

Some instruments will be left in place on the ice and operate autonomously during the resupply voyage, Dr. Rex said.

Organized by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, the $155 million expedition proceeded as planned for the first five months, with successful resupply missions by a Russian icebreaker in December and February.

But a third mission, to be carried out by aircraft flying from the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard this month, was postponed and then canceled because of Norwegian restrictions on travel to Svalbard amid the pandemic.

Dr. Rex said that, this week, two small Twin Otter planes had flown to the ship, where an ice runway has been constructed, and left about an hour later with seven expedition members. All had urgent family or professional commitments, he said. The planes, with limited range, stopped in northern Greenland to refuel before heading to Canada.

But the rest of the scientific team and crew, more than 90 people in all, will remain on board for about two months longer than planned.

Dr. Rex said about a dozen alternatives for the resupply mission had been considered, but most had insurmountable obstacles related to the global outbreak. “The challenges of the coronavirus crisis are huge,” he said. The plan they developed is complex, he added, “but it is certainly doable.”

The approach will make use of two other German research ships that recently returned from the Southern Hemisphere. The ships will sail from Bremerhaven through ice-free waters north to the edge of the ice near Svalbard in mid-May, and rendezvous with the Polarstern, which will have left its location about 200 to 300 miles (320 to 480 kilometers) north at about the same time. Reaching the rendezvous location is expected to take Polarstern about a week.

The ships will most likely meet in a fjord in Svalbard, where the water will be calm enough to allow safe transfer of supplies and people.

Scientists and crew members who are leaving for the Polarstern will be quarantined in Germany beginning in early May and will be tested frequently to ensure they are not infected. (The Polarstern has remained free of infection so far.)

Dr. Rex, who was on the ship for the first leg of the expedition and will return on this mission, said that, following the rendezvous, the Polarstern would either return to its original location in the ice, or travel farther north.

While the ship has followed a track that was anticipated by modeling of ice movement in the Arctic, it has drifted faster than expected, Dr. Rex said. That will aid the resupply mission, he said, because the ship will be closer to Svalbard. But by relocating closer to the pole in better ice conditions, the expedition would be more assured of continuing through the summer.

Dr. Rex credited several German research groups and government agencies with making the two resupply ships available on short notice. “Typically the deployment of research vessels is planned two years in advance,” he said. “This was done in just a few weeks.”

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