two men looking out of the ship
Photos courtesy of Esther Horvath, Michael Gutsche, and Lars Barthel/Alfred-Wegener-Institute 

What the Pandemic Felt Like From an Icebreaker Trapped in the Arctic

The largest Arctic expedition in history, MOSAiC, struggled with the logistical challenges of COVID-19—but as the pandemic raged, members were able to live a normal ‘fantasyland’ life.
June 7, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

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After months of living and working in perpetual darkness, the crew of the Polarstern research icebreaker gazed in awe as the delicate glow of twilight illuminated the seascape around them. But as the sun staged its annual comeback in the northern reaches of the world, a deadly pathogen was sweeping across major cities thousands of miles away.

It was February 2020, and the largest Arctic expedition in history was near the North Pole. The Polarstern served as the centerpiece of the mission, called the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), which was led by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. After the ship was deliberately locked into sea ice in October 2019, the Polarstern spent months drifting with the floe across the Arctic as researchers investigated the impact of climate change and other factors on the evolving polar region.

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The vast and mysterious expanse of the Arctic has attracted explorers for centuries, and MOSAiC’s mission was unlike any other in scale, scope, and purpose: It took about a decade to organize, involved 500 field participants from 37 nations, and cost a hefty $154 million. The overarching goal is to understand the mysterious far-northern climate, which is shaped by the complex interplay of its atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, and wildlife. As global temperatures rise due to human activity, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than any region on earth, a trend that will have consequences well beyond its borders.

To understand the future of the Arctic, and the world, the MOSAiC team planned to perform countless measurements and experiments over the course of the yearlong effort. But despite all this preparation, there was something else coming that no one involved could have foreseen.

polar bears holding flags

As the virus emerged that winter, the MOSAiC team kept up-to-date, thanks to the expedition’s daily journal and WhatsApp conversations with family and friends. But as February gave way to March, members watched in horror as it rapidly spread and turned into a full-blown global pandemic that necessitated quarantines, lockdowns, and severe travel restrictions.

This sudden shock was particularly acute for Giulia Castellani, a sea ice scientist in the AWI research group Polar Biological Oceanography from Italy’s Lombardy region—one of the first major epicenters of the pandemic. By the time Italy went into a national lockdown, Castellani had left the Polarstern to board the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, tasked with delivering researchers to Tromsø, a port in northern Norway.

That plan fell apart when Tromsø closed because of the pandemic, leaving the returning researchers temporarily stranded onboard the Dranitsyn with no place to go. Castellani remembered seeking out an internet connection on the Russian icebreaker’s stairs so that she could connect with her family and friends about the increasingly grave situation in Lombardy. “I was very concerned,” she said. “It was really a bad time.”

Meanwhile, MOSAiC members around the world were scrambling to come up with solutions to the unexpected curveball of the pandemic. Matthew Shupe, a co-leader of the project and an atmospheric scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) a project of the University of Colorado in Boulder and NOAA, had been on the first leg of the expedition, from September to December 2019, but was back in Colorado when the pandemic began to spiral out of control.

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“It started to become a bit of a dire situation because the folks that were out on-site, well, we lost our ability to get them out,” said Shupe. “They were feeling trapped, and morale started to really decrease.” For several weeks, the fate of this unprecedented expedition hung in the balance.

“Some people didn’t know what was happening back home with their parents or with their kids,” added Shupe. “They wanted to get home, but we had no way to get them home.”

Verena Mohaupt, a logistics coordinator at the AWI, was among the many MOSAiC members searching for answers. Like Shupe, she was on the first leg of the trip, but had returned to her home in Potsdam, Germany, by the time the pandemic broke out. Mohaupt remembered morning meetings where plans would be drawn up, only to be abandoned by the end of the day as leads evaporated. There was a tacit understanding that if there was no way to bring members home from the second leg—and eventually exchange the teams conducting the third and fourth legs—the entire mission would have to be abandoned.

doing repair work on the ice

Terminating MOSAiC would have been disastrous not only for the organizers and members, who had invested so much time, money, and effort into the project, but also for climate science writ large. The expedition had set out to fill a crucial information gap by providing a full year of comprehensive on-site data about the annual winter growth and summer melt of Arctic sea ice, which had never been done on such a large scale before.

Arctic sea ice is rapidly declining because of climate change, a trend that is contributing to rising temperatures in the region, which makes MOSAiC’s observations crucial for calibrating accurate climate models of our future. MOSAiC also aimed to study the connections between climate and the incredible diversity of microorganisms that live in the Arctic, providing the trophic foundation for larger animals such as polar bears, walruses, and birds. While valuable data had been collected over the winter, MOSAiC was still only halfway through its journey when the pandemic hit, with much research left to be done.

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“Nobody wanted the expedition to end or to have them leave completely,” Mohaupt said. “But it was clear to everybody that if we didn’t find any other solution, in the end, that’s what was going to happen, because we can’t leave those people there forever.”

Four weeks later, after a delay exacerbated by ice conditions and a refueling stop, the Dranitsyn was finally able to dock at Tromsø on March 31. The expedition then obtained special permission to fly the second-leg team back to Germany in April.

two men in the water

MOSAiC’s pandemic-related troubles were not over. An air campaign that had been planned for the spring had to be canceled after one of its members tested positive for COVID-19. Another complication arose when the icebreakers originally scheduled to deliver the fourth team to the Polarstern, and return the third team back to port, were no longer available because of the new travel restrictions.

As a result, the Polarstern had to leave its valuable spot in the sea ice to make the exchange with two hastily arranged German research vessels. Prior to the swap, the incoming team spent weeks in quarantine to prepare for the trip to the edge of the ice floe.

“The design was to be out there for the whole year, staying with this chunk of ice,” Shupe said. “It was also a very inopportune time for the ship to come out. It was right as the transition into the melt season is happening, which is, scientifically, a really important time. Fortunately, we could leave a lot of equipment there on the ice to keep making measurements.”

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Despite the setbacks, the team averted a total cancelation of the expedition—or worse, a COVID-19 outbreak on the confined and remote Polarstern, an environment where social distancing was impossible. MOSAiC members were relieved to be somewhat back on track by the end of June, under the endless sunlight of Arctic summer.

The mood onboard brightened not only because of the season, but because expedition members were able to resume a somewhat normal life, with no masks or limits on gatherings. Though the hectic schedule of research kept the team busy most of the time, members also occasionally grabbed spare moments to watch movies, play games, barbecue on the deck, host craft nights, or throw dance parties and sing-alongs. An onboard bar was sometimes opened to celebrate special occasions, like birthdays, while a small swimming pool and gym on the Polarstern allowed members to compete in athletic events. During the summer months, especially, members were able to leave the ship for long walks on the ice, admiring the majestic polar environment.

people at the gym

Castellani, Mohaupt, and Shupe all ended up on the fourth leg of the expedition, and separately recalled the moment on the way to the Polarstern when team members were finally allowed to embrace after weeks of tests and quarantine. The voyagers had to be wary of threats like polar bears or the capricious sea ice, but they were both physically and mentally able to escape the virus raging across the rest of the world.

“That was a great feeling, to be able to let go of the constrained life of COVID back home and be in our own safe haven out there, which was really probably the safest place on earth,” said Shupe.

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Shupe wasn’t originally scheduled to join this part of the expedition, but as a co-leader, he felt compelled to return to the ship as soon as possible once the pandemic hit. Castellani also took the opportunity to return, as travel restrictions had axed her original plans to visit her family in Italy in the spring and summer. “Going back to the Arctic was the easiest thing to do for me,” Castellani said. “I felt like I never really came back, because I was home for just one month. Was it my life? No. Was it home? Yes, it was my flat—but everything was weird... It was not life as it used to be.”

Mohaupt was also eager to return to the Arctic, so much so that she stayed on for the fifth and final leg of the expedition, which ended in October 2020. As the Polarstern approached its home port in Bremerhaven, Germany, the expedition members prepared to return to the stultifying rules outside of MOSAiC. “As soon as contact had been made with the real world, we had to wear masks, and hugging was no longer allowed,” Mohaupt said. “We all met on the helicopter deck to have one last hug and say goodbye, in that form, as long as we still could.”

An expedition of such scale and complexity was bound to leave people feeling wistful at its completion, but those emotions were amplified by the odd experience of returning to societies that had been entirely upended by the pandemic. “We’d been together for a number of months in the Arctic, so you’re already just naturally a little sad because you’re leaving this group of people that have been your family for a while,” said Shupe. “But then, you also look around and the world is different... So, it was kind of a downer to come back into that reality and away from our fantasyland out there in the Arctic.”

boarding the ship for leg 4

Castellani felt a disorienting delay in her adaptation to pandemic life after the expedition compared with her friends at home. After the initial relief of being able to see her loved ones in Italy, at last, in September, she recalled the sense of dislocation when she was finally back after such an eventful year. “I’m starting to experience the challenge of being in the pandemic, whereas my friends have been in this situation for one year already,” said Castellani. “I came back to a place that is not my life anymore. Sometimes I think I’m still struggling a bit; sometimes I’m asking myself: ‘Okay Giulia, are you really back?’”

Mohaupt felt similarly. “Honestly, I was really surprised how relaxed people were,” she said. “When I came back, the [COVID case] numbers were higher than what I had seen in May when I left, but people were acting more open... The general sense was, really, everybody’s gotten used to it, and I wasn’t there yet.”

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Now, several months after MOSAiC’s end and more than a year into the pandemic, the team is unpacking new data sets from the mission and decompressing. Castellani and her colleagues are currently poring over “the huge amount of samples” they collected from the year, she said, which have confirmed that the Arctic winter, despite its cold and sunless months, is a time of astonishing biological activity.

“We could really follow, during the winter period, certain species,” such as microbial zooplankton, Castellani said. “In general, the most fascinating part was to see the same system and follow it day by day, week by week, month by month and follow the seasonal progression and how it changed.”

Eventually, the team members will piece together an exceptional portrait of the Arctic that reveals the dynamics of its climate systems in an era of rapid change. As the ice pack thins over time, the transfer of energy and heat between the ocean and atmosphere will also transform, which will impact the climate of the region. Current projections suggest that the Arctic may experience ice-free summers by the middle of this century, a reality that will open new shipping routes and could challenge species as large as polar bears and as small as algae, as well as the Arctic’s human population, many of whom are Indigenous.

MOSAiC’s efforts over this turbulent year will provide a crucial baseline for understanding this key region for many decades to come. But beyond its research goals, the expedition is an example of the large-scale international collaborations that will be needed to combat global crises of the future, from short-term disasters like pandemics to the long-term effects of climate change.

“One thing, to me, that was really compelling about MOSAiC was the way in which we, as an international community, worked on this collective view of priorities,” Shupe said. “Here’s this collection of scientists—we had people from 37 nations involved, and that’s just remarkable—all coming together.”

Follow Becky Ferreira on Twitter.