CORONAVIRUS AFFECTS ICE-LOCKED RESEARCH MISSION NEAR NORTH POLE: Person scheduled to join German ship tests positive, flights to vessel via Longyearbyen suspended


A person scheduled to join the year-long MOSAiC mission aboard a German ship north of Svalbard has tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the suspension of flights for new team members to the ice-locked vessel because the afflicted was a member of the airborne support team, according to officials.

The Polarstern has been north of Svalbard since October, where a rotating group of international researchers are conducting a wide variety of work to expand knowledge of the Arctic’s rapid pace of climate change.

About 20 members of the aircraft team are now quarantined in their homes under direction of the German health agencies, Markus Rex, chief scientist for the mission, said in a statement published by Nature magazine. The person who tested positive is a German who’s role was to use aircraft to take measurements around the ship.

The announcement comes a day after the first people were quarantined in Longyearbyen due to possible infection, the annual Solfestuka festival was cancelled and the Norwegian Polar Institute suspended all non-essential travel and meetings. Norway also announced a series of heightened measures, including banning gatherings of more then 500 people.

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 as a stopping point on their way to the ship according to the statement. They are tested a second time in Longyearbyen before they are allowed to depart.

The infected individual was at a workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany, on March 5 with other aircraft members. The first round of testing was done as part of this meeting.

An infection aboard the Polarstern would pose enormous potential risks and challenges due to the extreme isolation of the vessel and close quarters all aboard live in. But for now the disruption to MOSAiC’s science objectives is minimal, said Matthew Shupe, mission’s co-ordinator, in a statement published by Nature. But if there are further delays “we’re going to decrease our frequency of catching the events that we want to see”.

He said the rapid spread of the virus globally is likely to cause further difficulties.

“All of this is becoming very complicated,” Shupe said. “Every day is just a full-day scramble.”

But Rex said the protective measures that the team have put in place are effective.

“It clearly shows that our concept to minimize the risk is a good one,” he said. “But it cannot be minimized to zero.”