How COVID-19 Has Compromised The Largest Central Arctic Expedition In History

Jun 11, 2020


In September 2019, a year-long experiment began. Publicized as the largest Central Arctic expedition in history, it was to be the closest ever look at the Arctic to better understand climate change. This experiment involves hundreds of scientists from around the world, including two from right here in Monterey. But it is currently compromised because of the coronavirus pandemic.


It wasn't too long ago that Tim Stanton was in the Arctic. 


“It's just always exciting. You're tromping across this relatively smooth landscape,” said Stanton.


He's Emeritus Research Professor of Oceanography at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey and one of the scientists involved in this expedition, called MOSAiC. He's also an adjunct professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. 


He spent six weeks in the Arctic towards the end of last year setting up experiments. The challenges began as soon as they arrived.


“The big problem was that the ice was really weak and thin and that was right throughout the region,” said Stanton.



Hundreds of scientists from around the world are involved in the MOSAiC expedition which has been publicized as the closest ever look at the Arctic to better understand climate change.
Credit Mario Hoppman (AWI Germany).

This affected where MOSAiC could set up its central observatory. It also meant they lost equipment when the ice broke up.


But the biggest challenge became apparent in February when Stanton said they realized COVID-19 would become a worldwide pandemic. 


“And immediately the resupply ship rendezvous were compromised,” said Stanton.


Ships from across the world that were scheduled to make journeys to the Arctic to exchange crews and drop off supplies cancelled their trips. The scientific crew in the Arctic at the time were forced to stay two months longer than originally planned.


And in the end no ship was able to make the journey north. In May, scientists finally left the Arctic on the same ship that had been their hotel and laboratory since the beginning, the Polarstern. That ship was supposed to stay in the Arctic for the entire expedition. 


“And the only option that was left was for the Polarstern to meet surface ships, not going into the sea ice somewhere, in a safe location like the fjord in Svalbard exchange the crew, exchange the instruments,” said Wieslaw Maslowski. He’s a Research Professor in Oceanography at NPS. 


He’s been involved in the planning of MOSAiC since the early stages. 

Wieslaw Maslowski in his office at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He is a Research Professor in Oceanography and has been involved in the planning of MOSAiC since the early stages.
Credit Michelle Loxton


By leaving the Arctic this means only the experiments that were autonomous could continue. Anything that needed scientists on the ice came to a stop.


This year-long experiment will have missing data. 


Despite this both NPS scientists are optimistic. Maslowski says they’ll still have a lot of data to work with. And besides, Stanton says in ways this is par for the course.


“I want to point out that working in the Arctic, we are kind of used to compromises. So, it's in the category of stuff happens,” said Stanton.


Tim Stanton (right) working in the Central Arctic at the end of 2019 as part of the MOSAiC expedition.
Credit Tim Stanton

  But he does add, “This is an extremely expensive experiment that took more than a decade to put together. So it's compromising, but it's not devastating.”


The Polarstern has exchanged crews and scientists on open water near Norway. The new crew had been quarantining to make sure no one heading to the Arctic has the coronavirus.


With fresh supplies the ship has rushed back to MOSAiC’s central observatory. To see how the instruments have fared and hope that they have survived the imminent break up of warming sea ice.


But no matter what they find when they return, scientists say they’ve already collected valuable data about the biology, chemistry and physics of the Central Arctic. Data that will be used to better understand climate change.