Threat of Deadly COVID-19 Hinders Research Mission To The Polar Region
Coronavirus threats now delay arctic climate researchers. The pandemic is affecting scientists on an extensive research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean, hindering critical climate research operations. The coronavirus crisis has spread far and wide, touching all parts of society and affecting civilians, celebrities, politicians, and sports stars.
It is one of the largest-ever research missions to the polar region called MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) project, with which researchers are associated.
The scientists intentionally froze the German research vessel Polarstern into Arctic sea ice last October, as their home base. The scientists created a “drifting polar-research laboratory” by trapping the ship and themselves in floating ice for over one year, from which they hope to get a closer look at the Arctic’s rapidly changing climate, reported Nature as the expedition began. The researchers and technicians sample the ice, atmosphere, and ocean to understand better the intricate Arctic climate and how it affects the global environment.
In the 13-month study, 600 people from 19 countries will move onto the ship on a rotation basis via other icebreakers and aircraft.
This month, a team member slated to join the expedition tested positive for the virus right before departing for the field, but the crew on the ship are currently free from infection.
MOSAiC chief scientist Markus Rex told Nature that the infected individual had contact with 20 other members from the aircraft team while attending a pre-expedition workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany, on March 5. Those 20 team members are being quarantined for 14 days in their homes by German health agencies. The airborne component of the expedition will be delayed and postponed until the quarantine is lifted for the safety of people on board.
“We don’t want any exposure out there at the Polarstern,” mission co-coordinator Matthew Shupe told The New York Times. All team members scheduled to join MOSAiC are tested twice, two weeks before leaving their homes, and once before leaving for the ship. And this protocol of testing uncovered the infection before it reached the field.
The risk was explained by Lynne Talley, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Given the close quarters on the ship and the long incubation time of the virus, it is critical to keep the infection from getting on the ship. Talley told Nature, “Suppose someone inadvertently does end up on the ship with a virus. It would just pretty much take the entire ship.”
Two major coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships – the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan last month, and the Grand Princess, which was held offshore March 4 to 9 in northern California, Talley’s warning comes soon after these incidents.
The postponement should only minimally disrupt the scientific objectives of MOSAiC, Shupe told Nature. Assuming the quarantine is lifted, and no others test positive, “the plan is to carry forward with the activities,” he said to The New York Times. A separate airborne unit scheduled for April to bring fresh supplies and new researchers remains unchanged, Shupe confirmed. “That part, so far, is on target.”
Shupe did caution that further delays would “shrink the window for the airborne mission.” As the pandemic continues to intensify worldwide, he is worried about future complications for the expedition.