Half time: The research ship "Polarstern" has been underway in Central Arctic for six months. The corona pandemic is delaying the next planned exchange of scientists. The expedition leader does not currently see the project in danger.
Bremerhaven (dpa) - Markus Rex hardly has a quiet minute at the moment. He is in constant contact with the authorities, the Federal Foreign Office or colleagues. The scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) is the leader of the one-year "Mosaic" expedition, which celebrates half-time on April 1.
At least he does not want to leave any doubt about this milestone: "We continue to expect that" Polarstern "will return to Bremerhaven as planned on October 12. From the current perspective, the corona pandemic will not lead to an early termination of the expedition . "
However, the next crew change is delayed by weeks because entry and exit permits and quarantine regulations would have to be observed. When the Bremerhaven research vessel "Polarstern" set sail from Norway on September 20, 2019 to be frozen for a year in the central Arctic, there were numerous emergency scenarios. The scientists wanted to be prepared for all eventualities. "We have plans for many things in the drawer," emphasizes Markus Rex, "but not for a global pandemic of this magnitude. Nobody could have predicted that."
During the one-year drift in the ice, the hundred international researchers on board should be replaced every two months. The last change was already delayed by two weeks because the supply ship with the new personnel made very slow progress through the thick ice. Polar aircraft should be used for the next exchange. For this purpose, an airstrip was prepared on the huge ice floe with which the "Polarstern" drifts. But the corona pandemic has destroyed all plans: no one is allowed to enter Norway anymore, the scientists have been banned from traveling by their institutes.
"We are discussing with our partners how we can manage the next exchange anyway," says Rex. This will be "very likely in May". "When we find a secure solution that is approved by all authorities, we will let you know." One thing is clear: before the new crew comes on the ship, they will be tested twice for the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
Rex himself would have been back on board long ago according to the original plans. He was already part of the first "Mosaic" trip, he wanted to be there for his fourth trip in front of his colleagues and use a flight as part of a project to measure the atmosphere and sea ice. However, the campaign had to be suspended because one participant had tested positive for the corona virus. Rex is now in self-imposed quarantine. He didn't want to take any chances.
However, the current crew on the research ship is not in danger. "It is well supplied with food and fuel," emphasizes Rex. Each participant perceives that she now has to stay on board much longer than planned. "Of course there are also those who suffer from it and would like to be with their families." For this reason, satellite telephone calls are offered to a coach who specializes in crisis management. "So far, however, I don't see that this is necessary," said Rex.
The researchers had to be made aware of the dramatic extent of the corona pandemic. "You can't surf the internet, there isn't enough bandwidth for that." Every day they get short summaries of the news. They would also be in contact with their families via email or WhatsApp. But the Arctic team did not notice the news, which sometimes rolled over every hour.
The crew also currently has their own problems. "There is a high level of ice dynamics, cracks repeatedly appear on the floe and instruments threaten to sink." Accordingly, the researchers had their hands full, Rex said. "Life on board continues as ever."