MOSAiC FORCED OUT OF ‘ISOLATION’ FOR SUPPLIES, NEW STAFF: Year-long research project on ice far north of Svalbard on hold for three weeks as coronavirus cuts off support flights


A year-long project to study climate change on a research ship far north of Svalbard is taking a forced three-week break to sail south to the archipelago to meet with with two other vessels carrying fresh supplies and personnel due to the coronavirus pandemic cutting off support flights, officials announced Friday.

The MOSAiC expedition that is now about halfway through its planed schedule “suddenly faced unforeseen challenges (as) the massive restrictions on global travel hindered the third team exchange, which had been planned as an aerial transfer in early April,” according to a statement at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s website detailing the alternative supply plan.  Icebreakers originally intended to bring supplies to the German research ship Polarstern being used for the expedition are also prohibited from making staff transfers.

The Polarstern will now meet up with other German vessels within Svalbard’s waters to obtain fuel, supplies and fresh personnel before resuming far-Arctic research in early May, according to the institute.

“An interim review of the project shows the data to be gathered over the next several months will be indispensable for the scientific community,” the statement notes. It adds, “moreover it was only the team’s tremendous commitment and flexibility that allowed us to conduct climate research in the Arctic ice two months longer than planned, despite the current conditions. As a result, in spite of the extremely adverse conditions, the continuation of the expedition has been secured.”

Participants in the next stage will be in a monitored quarantine phase, during which they will be regularly tested for the coronavirus. The institute notes there are now only four, rather than five, personnel transfers during the year-long project, and some data collection opportunities are being lost, but is still scheduled to end on its original date of Oct. 12.

Due to the delayed exchange, there will only be a total of four, not five, transfers in the course of the expedition, but this will have no effect on its total duration: the planned end date is still 12 October 2020.

“Many of our people have families, and are of course doing everything they can to stay in close contact with their loved ones back home via satellite phone and e-mail,” said Torsten Kanzow, an institute professor and current chief scientist aboard the Polarstern, in a prepared statement. “As the expedition leader, I also note the hardships and concerns of the people on board, and pass them on to the coordination office and the AWI. This has helped us regain a bit of certainty in our planning efforts.”