A large ship surrounded by ice. People are walking on the ice floe.

The ship Polarstern is locked in Arctic ice for the MOSAiC mission.Credit: Sebastian Grote/Alfred-Wegener-Institut (CC-BY 4.0)

The coronavirus crisis is imperilling a massive international scientific project, after a team member tested positive for the virus.

The mission, called MOSAiC, is operating from the German research vessel Polarstern, which has been intentionally frozen in Arctic sea ice since last October. From this ice-encrusted platform, a rotating cast of scientists and technicians are sampling the ice, atmosphere and ocean in an attempt to understand the intricacies of the rapidly changing Arctic climate.

The team member who contracted the virus works on the airborne component of the expedition and had not yet joined the mission in the Arctic. This key part of the mission — which has now been delayed to protect those on board the ship — will use scientific aircraft to take measurements around Polarstern, to provide context for those taken at the ship.

About 20 members of the aircraft team who had been in contact with the person are now quarantined in their homes under the direction of the German health agencies, says MOSAiC chief scientist Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. The mission is delayed until the quarantine is lifted.

Close quarters

To minimize the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, all team members who are scheduled to join MOSAiC — which stands for Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate — are tested for coronavirus before departing their homes for Svalbard, Norway, from where they leave for the ship. There, they are tested a second time before they are allowed to depart. The infected individual had attended a workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany, on 5 March with other aircraft team members; the first round of testing was done as part of this meeting and the scientists who attended did not travel to Svalbard.

The risk is that viruses can propagate extremely quickly on ships, says Lynne Talley, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s very close quarters,” she says. And given the virus’s long incubation time, isolation measures might not be put in place quickly enough to make a difference on a research ship. “Suppose someone inadvertently does end up on the ship with this virus,” says Talley. “It would just pretty much take the entire ship.”

The MOSAiC infection comes after at least two major coronavirus outbreaks on large cruise liners — the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined last month off Yokohama, Japan, and the Grand Princess, which was held from 4 to 9 March off the northern California coast.

Quarantine delay

The air mission had been due to log its first flights on 12 March. When it does take place, it will depart from Svalbard through the Arctic, collecting various types of atmospheric data as well as information about conditions on the surface. Some team members will land on the ice near the ship to refuel — something that could cause the virus to spread among mission scientists if people on the aircraft team are infected.

For now, the disruption to MOSAiC’s scientific objectives is minimal, says mission co-coordinator Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. But if further delays shrink the window for the airborne mission, he says, “we’re going to decrease our frequency of catching the events that we want to see”.

And as the outbreak continues to worsen around the world, more and more difficulties are likely to arise that could harm MOSAiC’s mission. “All of this is becoming very complicated,” Shupe says. “Every day is just a full-day scramble.”

Rex is confident that the protective measures that the team has put in place are effective. “It clearly shows that our concept to minimize the risk is a good one,” he says. “But it cannot be minimized to zero.”