Alternative resupply plan for Polarstern now in place
Despite the current challenges, the MOSAiC expedition will continue. After many national borders were closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, one team transfer had to be postponed. But thanks to new alternative plans supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Research Foundation and the operators of the German research fleet as well as the dedicated work of the expedition team currently on board, MOSAiC will soon enter its next phase. An interim review of the project shows: the data to be gathered over the next several months will be indispensable for the scientific community.
After successfully completing the first half of its more-than-a-year-long drift through the Arctic Ocean, the international expedition MOSAiC suddenly faced unforeseen challenges, posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The massive restrictions on global travel hindered the third team exchange, which had been planned as an aerial transfer in early April, using the Spitsbergen archipelago (which Norwegian authorities have since placed off limits due to the pandemic) as a base of operations. Since the current situation also means the international icebreakers that were originally meant to resupply the expedition are also prohibited from making any staff transfers, in the span of just a few weeks the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), the MOSAiC Coordination Office and the funding bodies and operators of the German Research Fleet Coordination Centre at Hamburg University developed a completely new alternative plan:
The upcoming transfer will be completed out with the aid of the German research vessels RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian. As a result of the pandemic-related measures, both ships have just returned to Germany. Polarstern will meet the two vessels in calm waters off Svalbard, in order to carry out a complete personnel transfer (ca. 100 people), and an exchange of cargo and provisions. Once the process is complete, Polarstern and her new team will return to the ice and continue their expedition in the Arctic Ocean.
Expedition Leader Prof Markus Rex from the AWI: “With this alternative plan, the AWI’s Logistics Team, together with our international partners, achieved a true masterstroke in the face of the enormous challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. With a host of alternative plans at the ready, the expedition was prepared for virtually every scenario imaginable. Yet the pandemic forced us to devise a complex alternative scenario for wholly new, unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances. We thank the operators of the German research fleet, the German Research Foundation and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. 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.”
The new staff exchange plan will be accompanied by extensive safety concepts developed in close collaboration with the respective health authorities. From early May, the participants in the next leg of the expedition living in Germany will enter a monitored quarantine phase, during which they will be regularly tested for the coronavirus. 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.
Prof Torsten Kanzow from the AWI, the current chief scientist on board Polarstern, had the following to report: “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 email. 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.” In addition, on 22 April seven participants, whose personal circumstances made it impossible to stay longer, were flown out with a Twin Otter. According to Kanzow, he’s happy to see that, despite the current challenges and concerns, the participants have continued to carry out their research duties in the ice with great enthusiasm – even though, since 31 March, they have had to do so in the never-ending sunlight of the Polar Day.
Over the past months, Polarstern has rapidly advanced along her projected drift corridor; as a result, she is already between the North Pole and Fram Strait, i.e., fairly far to the south. For the upcoming logistical operation, this position is advantageous. Some instruments on the MOSAiC floe will continue recording autonomously until Polarstern returns, while others will be dismantled.
Depending on how the drift progresses, the Ice Camp may be relocated closer to the North Pole. The possibility of tearing down and relocating the camp was always part of the planning scenarios, in the event that the ship drifted faster than anticipated. This would have only minimal effects on the expedition timeline. As Markus Rex explains, “If we drift too far south, we will set up the Ice Camp again farther north, and continue our observations in a region where the Central Arctic is still covered with ice in the summer. We’re thrilled with the tremendous amount of data we’ve been able to gather over the past seven months. Despite the current adversities, we hope to continue the expedition for the remainder of the year-long cycle, and draw it to a close in October as planned.”
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The Alfred Wegener Institute pursues research in the polar regions and the oceans of mid and high latitudes. As one of the 19 centres of the Helmholtz Association it coordinates polar research in Germany and provides ships like the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations for the international scientific community.