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Arctic field work in the time of Corona

Atualizado: 24 de jun. de 2021

Illustration by Catarina Mello

There is no denying that 2020 was a crazy year for all of us. My year began with a new job, a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. I signed on to do research looking at the diet of copepods in the central Arctic as a part of the year-long MOSAiC expedition (Multi-disciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate). In graduate school, I had used molecular techniques to explore the bacterial communities associated with copepods in subtropical waters, and now I had the opportunity to apply those skills to a different population of animals to study food-web interactions.

When I started this journey, there was no way to know that I would end up spending the summer of coronavirus in what would strangely become one of the safest places on Earth: the Arctic. To qualify for the expedition, we had to go through physicals and rigid health tests to make sure we were fit for the physical and emotional isolation of spending months at the top of the world. Before being allowed on the ice, we trained on how to rescue ourselves should we fall through into the frigid water below, we learned how to identify and treat frostbite and hypothermia, and we even had a lesson on polar bear behavior and what to do should we be confronted with a bear. Any person going on the ice was required to bring with them a polar bear guard (either trained science team volunteer or logistics team member), armed with a flare gun (first line of defense) and rifle (should things really go awry). Each group also carried with them at least 2 radios to communicate with the ship and 2 throw ropes in case someone needed to be pulled from the water. Every scientist was issued a special red suit, designed to keep you warm in very low temperatures and provide some floatation, a whistle, and ice picks to wear around your neck (these could be used to dig into the ice to save you should you fall in).

Female marine scientist smiles to the camera wearing a red jumpsuit, yellow rubber boots, and ice picks around her neck. She is standing on the ice in the Arctic Ocean with ice coring equipment around her and  a research vessel  in the background.

Me modeling my survival suit and safety gear on the ice. Photo credit: Jessie Gardner (license CC BY 4.0)

With all of these precautions in place, the danger on most of our minds in March and April was the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The growing pandemic delayed the exchange of personnel by over a month, and the entire science team and ship’s crew were required to quarantine in a hotel in Bremerhaven, Germany for 2 weeks before getting on the ships that would take us to meet the Research Vessel Polarstern. After flying into Germany from the United States, all of the scientists were brought to a hotel by bus, where we checked in, said goodbye to those we traveled with (most I had met for the first time on the airplane), and settled into our individual hotel rooms. For 10 days, I was alone in my room, and the only time my door opened was to bring in the meals left 3 times a day outside the door. The group of scientists were thankfully all brought together by a WhatsApp group chat that frequently was updated with photos of the day’s sunset, reviews of meals, and updates of our next dreaded nasal swab (or brain tissue sample, as many of us believed). Nothing pulls a group of isolated individuals together quite like the anticipation of deep sinus probing.

“I got Tim! It wasn’t so bad, it stopped burning after only an hour.”

“Lucky! I got Eberhard this time. I can still feel the swab!”

Three female expedition participants are seen looking out of their hotel windows with a view of boats in a canal.

Cruise participants meet each other from their hotel windows while in quarantine. Photo credit: Lianna Nixon (license CC BY 4.0)

In all, I had 4 deep nasal swabs performed for Covid-19 testing before the cruise (and an additional one at the end before I could fly home). When all of these came back negative for everyone staying in the hotel, we were finally allowed to intermingle with one another. This meant we could dine together, go outdoors on the roof or the roped off patio, and attend our safety briefings. While still confined to the hotel property, this week passed much more quickly than the isolated time. It was the first chance many of us had to meet one another and talk about the science we do and what we planned to do in the field. There were about 60 scientists, media people, and logistics team members in this hotel, and these would be the people I would live and work with for the next 3 months. The acronym MOSAiC really describes the people as much as the science. We had a beautiful blend of scientists involved from around the world, studying the entire Arctic environment from their respective fields. There were sea-ice physicists, atmospheric chemists, physical oceanographers, biologists, and biogeochemists studying everything from nutrients and aerosols to plankton and fish to the physical properties that drive ocean circulation and ice formation and melt. By the time we were finally ready to board the ship, we had all made some new friends and gotten even more excited about our own science.

Two pairs of marine scientists embrace smiling while surrounded by other scientists. The people are wearing jackets and backpacks, and in the background there are shelves with protective equipment.

Hugs all around! A rare sight in 2020, when finally aboard the ship, scientists were allowed to embrace one another, old friends and new. For 3 months, we were the fortunate few who lived without masks or social distancing or fear of a viral foe. Photo credit: Lianna Nixon (license CC BY 4.0)

Because of the ongoing pandemic, our plans for how to reach the Polarstern had to be adapted several times. The original plan was to intentionally freeze the research vessel into the ice, drifting with an ice floe (a solid sheet of floating ice) across the Arctic basin for an entire year. My portion of the trip (Leg 4 of 5 total), was supposed to gather on a small island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, called Svalbard. From there, we were to fly onto the ice sheet in early April, when the ice was thick enough to support an airplane. Due to border closures, we were unable to enter Svalbard, so a new plan was constructed, to have a Swedish ice-class research vessel take us to meet the Polarstern. Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus also foiled this plan. While the Polarstern is Germany’s premier ice breaking research vessel, they also own smaller research vessels that are not able to break thick ice. The eventual solution was to split the scientists and crew into two ships to travel together to a fjord in Svalbard and await the arrival of the Polarstern. Breaking free from the ice it had been frozen into for the past 7 months took longer than expected, and my group of scientists waited over a week on board the Maria S. Merian.

Photograph of an Arctic landscape. A blue sky with lots of white clouds takes up about two thirds of the frame. In the lower portion, to the left is the Maria S. Merian research vessel and to the right the Sonne research vessel. In the far background there are snow-capped mountains.

German research vessels Maria S. Merian (left) and Sonne (right) stand ready for handover of personnel and supplies in a fjord in Svalbard. (Photo credit: Katyanne Shoemaker, license CC BY 4.0)

The scenery around us was breathtaking. We were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and fin, minke, and humpback whales occasionally made themselves known around us. We had crossed into the Arctic circle on the transit up, and, since it was summer, we had 24 hours of daylight. Living conditions were interesting, since the ship was not designed for this many people, shipping containers were brought in which were fitted with bunk beds and bathrooms. Despite the cramped quarters, the attitude on board was jovial. “Container life,” as we called it, brought us all closer together in common areas. Science presentations were low-pressure and the only competition was to see who could have the most fun with them. A few of us led yoga and aerobics classes to stay fit in the mornings (my first time leading Zumba or yoga!), and we’d play games, watch movies, and have dance parties at night. Unlike the rest of the world, we were able to hug each other and chat freely, without masks or 1.5 meters of distance. We had done so much to get to this point, and on the morning of June 4th, the Polarstern arrived, we exchanged cargo and personnel over the next several days, and finally, we were ready to begin our research!

Photograph of two vessels side by side in the Arctic. Two large blue containers and several orange barrels are seen on the vessel on the right, with a single person in the background. A large buoy with tires is protecting the ships from collision with one another. In the distance the water seems calm and there are brown hills.

Two large research vessels pull alongside each other to exchange people and supplies. The Polarstern had last been restocked 4 months earlier on the Arctic ice sheet during polar night. (Photo credit: Katyanne Shoemaker, license CC BY SA 4.0)

Stay tuned for my next post, in which I will talk about the science I did on the ice during the Arctic summer!

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