Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

The Polarstern is drifting with Arctic ice. Research flights supporting the mission have been canceled.

Alfred Wegener Institute/Esther Horvath (CC BY 4.0)

Coronavirus concerns force Arctic mission to cancel research flights

The global coronavirus outbreak is now curtailing research at the top of the world. Travel restrictions imposed by Norway have forced the cancellation of research flights in support of the Polarstern, the icebound German research ship that is the centerpiece of a $150 million mission to study the effects of climate change on the Arctic.

A series of 10 to 15 research flights due to take off from Svalbard, Norway, in March and April have been canceled, says Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. “It’s very sad, but we had to cancel,” says Rex, leader of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). A second set of flights, planned for August, might still happen, he says. “We just have to play it by ear.”

The mission is also facing a potentially more serious disruption: The next rotation of researchers, scheduled to join the Polarstern in early April, are also supposed to travel through Svalbard, a semiautonomous archipelago that has closed its borders to outsiders because of coronavirus concerns. Expedition leaders are working with Norwegian authorities to find a way to get 100 coronavirus-free researchers to the ship, which has not reported any cases of COVID-19.

Since October 2019, the Polarstern has been frozen in Arctic sea ice, drifting with currents that have taken it to within 156 kilometers of the North Pole. Teams of researchers, rotating in roughly 2-month shifts, are using the ship as a base to conduct experiments on the nearby ice into the Arctic’s physical, geochemical, and biological systems.

In parallel, two research planes, Polar 5 and Polar 6, were supposed to collect key springtime data, including images of the melting sea ice and measurements of its thickness along with atmospheric data. The aircraft data would complement those being collected on and around the ship, and they would help fill in a data “hole” over the central Arctic that remote sensing satellites can’t fill because of their orbits. The planes are fitted with skis to land on an ice runway near the ship, and eight flights were scheduled to land there.

But a member of the flight team tested positive for COVID-19 after participating in a 5 March training session in Bremerhaven, Germany, with more than 20 other researchers and support staff. As part of the mission’s efforts to avoid introducing COVID-19 to the ship, all session participants were tested for the virus. The team member who tested positive was not showing symptoms—he had apparently already recovered from a mild infection that he likely contracted on a visit to Italy—but German authorities asked all of the people at the session, including key flight engineers, to stay in home quarantine for 2 weeks, until 18 March.

Flight mission leaders initially hoped they could still complete their planned flights with a slight delay and reshuffling of the flight schedule. However, on 13 March the Norwegian government announced that anyone entering the country from outside the Nordic region had to stay in quarantine for an additional 2 weeks. Then, Svalbard announced it would close the archipelago to outsiders and only allow permanent residents to travel back from the Norwegian mainland.

That means the planned flights have to be canceled, the expedition announced today. The restrictions aren’t a surprise, given the speed at which the pandemic has spread, Rex says. “We expected something like this to happen. They certainly don’t want to import [the virus] to the archipelago.” The archipelago is semi-independent, part of Norway but with its own governor, Kjerstin Askholt. “She knows MOSAiC very well,” Rex says, because the expedition worked closely with her to develop its emergency evacuation and search and rescue plans.

Rex is still trying to find a way to send the crew and scientists who, in April, are supposed to replace the team rotated onto the ship in February, after a resupply rendezvous with a Russian icebreaker. He says MOSAiC has sent Svalbard officials a proposed procedure for how the new rotation could go into quarantine in Svalbard, which could then allow them to travel on to the ship. Expedition leaders are looking at alternative routes, Rex says, but all of them depend on how infection rates and travel restrictions evolve over the next weeks in different countries. He remains optimistic that a solution can be found. “We are confident this can be worked out.”