Arctic: The coronavirus plays the greatest scientific mission

Arctique: Le coronavirus chamboule la plus grande mission scientifique

BERLIN | members of the largest scientific expedition ever undertaken in the Arctic were prepared for anything, even the attacks of polar bears. But not at a pandemic that would threaten the continuation of their mission.

With a two-month delay, the scientists of this international crew, responsible for more than a year of studying the consequences of climate change at the North pole, should eventually be able to relay in the coming days.

Back to the North pole, where he is allowed to drift all winter in the ice, the ice-breaker Polarstern of the German institute Alfred Wegener in Bremerhaven (north-west) is expected to address shortly the coast of the archipelago of Norwegian Svalbard.

He lands then a hundred of international researchers, who come to spend nearly three months at the North pole, to embark one hundred of their colleagues, including the head of the mission, Markus Rex, sent on board two research vessels from Bremerhaven.

This climatologist and a physicist, who has already made a first stay from September to January on board the Polarstern, was developed with his team over a dozen scenarios in case of unexpected during the 390 days that should last the expedition.

600 experts

“We had to set up a new plan very quickly”, after the onset of the pandemic that has brought the world to the judgment, he said by telephone to AFP from Spitsbergen, the main island of Svalbard.

The expedition, called MOSAIC, and part in September of Norway, has the objective to study both the atmosphere, the ocean, sea ice and ecosystem in order to collect data assessing the impact of climate change on the region and the world.

During 390 days, around 600 experts and scientists take turns on the ship who is left to drag with the ice, depending on the drifting polar, the ocean current that flows west to east in the Arctic ocean.

At the end of February, the boat was only 156 km from the North pole. Never again a boat was far up north in the winter.

Initially, the new team, composed of experts from a dozen different countries, should join at the beginning of April the Polarstern by plane from Svalbard. But the closure of borders has nailed the device on the ground.

Finally, after many obstacles, the mission officials have decided to forward the scientific, as well as food and fuel, by ship to Spitsbergen.

The Polarstern on its side has been interrupted a few weeks his search to come to seek his new team.

“The second big challenge that we have faced, it is to ensure that the virus does not spread among the members of the expedition”, continues Markus Rex.

Quarantine strict

For this, a quarantine is strictly more than 14 days has been imposed to the whole new team in two hotels in Bremerhaven fully rented for them.

“The doors (of the room) could not open, there has been no contact with people outside (…). Meal trays were delivered in front of the door”, details there.

Only distraction of the scientists confined: to sing at the window “Yellow Submarine” from The Beatles, reports the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“While the world has undergone three tests” screening of the COVID-19, stated Markus Rex, relieved that this mission to which he has devoted 11 years of his life can continue.

On board the “Polarstern”, which has already faced 150 days of polar night and temperatures dropped to -39,5 °C, the team had to be placed under bell in the world at a distance.

“A lot of them have families and are trying of course to stay as closely as possible in touch with their relatives by satellite phone,” explains Torsten Kanzow, currently on the icebreaker.

But no worries about a possible shortage of live. Stocks had been embedded for several months.

In the end, these obstacles should not have a major impact on the research conducted, according to Markus Rex. “Measurement instruments automatic” stayed on the camp ice research “we send new data day-to-day very interesting,” even if “we have an interruption of some measures” in the absence of Polarstern”.

The end of the expedition remains, therefore, maintained for 12 October.

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