Delays and uncertainty have come to the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition, after a team member based in Germany who works on the airborne component of the mission tested positive for COVID-19.
The 400-foot Polarstern is currently near the North Pole, as scheduled, having been drifting north with the pack ice since October. While the novel coronavirus has yet to be detected on the icebreaker itself, “one member of a team of about 20 people scheduled to fly research missions as part of the expedition has tested positive for the virus in Germany,” reports the New York Times. The affected person had interacted with colleagues prior to diagnosis, so the entire team for the airborne mission is now in quarantine in Germany.
Expedition coordinator and University of Colorado research scientist Matthew Shupe told the Times that once the quarantined crew are cleared to go, “the plan is to carry forward” with the mission, though he indicated the final call would be made by Germany-based Alfred Wegener Institute, the organizer of the international expedition. The work ahead for the airborne missions will complement research being conducted below with measurements of the ice itself and of clouds and “other characteristics of the atmosphere.”
What remains uncertain is whether the flights will be permitted to land on an ice runway that was built close to the Polarstern, given that “a viral disease like COVID-19 could quickly spread through the confined quarters of the ship, which has about 100 people on board at a time.”
Adding to the delay, and the stress, is the fact that while MOSAiC is requiring that anyone taking part in the expedition in the coming months be tested twice for the virus (before arrival and before departure), American team members are coming up against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols that currently allow only those who are already symptomatic to be tested.
Shupe has been able to obtain test kits from Germany, however, and will be sending results back to that country.
In an interview with Nature, which first reported on the research quarantine and delay, Shupe said the disruption to MOSAiC’s scientific objectives has been small, thus far. However, any further COVID-driven delays will mean “we’re going to decrease our frequency of catching the events that we want to see.”