Day 6

Return home finally in sight for Arctic researchers stranded because of COVID-19

Carin Ashjian was supposed to be finishing up her stint aboard a research ship in the Arctic Ocean in April. But because of travel restrictions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, she and her team have been essentially stranded for nearly two months longer than planned.

Carin Ashjian's team was supposed to be relieved by the next cohort in April

Adela Dumitrascu, centre, and Partic Simoes Pereira conduct research work on an ice floe next to the German icebreaker Polarstern, as part of the MOSAiC scientific expedition on Dec. 15, 2019. Researchers who arrived on site in January have had their leg of the project extended by nearly two months because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions. (Esther Horvath/Alfred Wegener Institute)

Like millions of other people around the world, Carin Ashjian is stuck inside for most hours of the day during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ashjian, however, can't exactly step outside for a quick walk. She's currently stuck in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by ice, aboard a German research ship.

"You can never be really certain of anything when you're trying to come in and out of the frozen Arctic Ocean in the wintertime. The ship has plenty of food [and fuel]. So we're all very comfortable on board the ship," Ashjian told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"The only thing I would say is I don't have that many clothes … so I'm getting a little bit sick of wearing the same shirts every day."

Ashjian is part of the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), a 13-month expedition studying how climate change has affected the northernmost reaches of the planet.

Icebreakers Kapitan Dranitysn, front, and Polarstern, rear, are pictured in the Arctic ice on Feb. 28. (Steffen Graupner/Alfred-Wegener-Institute via AP)

The project launched last September with the involvement of 20 countries with a total budget of $140 million euros ($158 million Cdn).

Rotating teams of researchers each spend a handful of months aboard the icebreaker Polarstern — at least, that's how it was supposed to work.

I kind of actually grieve for my world quite a bit, thinking about how different it's going to be when I go home.- Carin Ashjian

Ashjian's team started their current stretch in January and were scheduled to be relieved in April. But the spread of the coronavirus grounded all scheduled air or sea travel, essentially stranding them in the Far North.

Organizers at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research managed to fly out a handful of people via Canada last month.

MOSAiC co-leader Matthew Shupe on the bow of Polarstern on Sept. 26, 2019. (Esther Horvath/Alfred Wegener Institute)

The rest of the crew will be exchanged with the help of two other German research ships that will meet the Polarstern on the sea ice edge.

Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and co-leader of the MOSAiC expedition, is part of the next cohort, which is finally en route by sea to relieve Ashjian's team. He said the Alfred Wegener Institute worked with German health authorities to arrange the transfer.

He and about 90 other scientists have been kept in isolation in the German port of Bremerhaven to guarantee anyone coming aboard the Polarstern is virus-free.

"It'll also take us a couple of weeks to get out there. So effectively, it's like yet another level of quarantine on the way out," Shupe told Day 6.

'Like a floating dormitory'

Ashjian said the team has been passing the time much like they've been doing since they started their stretch of work on the Polarstern, which is outfitted with some leisure spaces and amenities — albeit more cramped than your typical pleasure craft.

"We'd play a lot of [card] games.… There is a gym here. There's a sauna, there's a swimming pool, and people play water ball on some evenings. When we're still at the ice floe, we would go on walks in the evenings," she said.

Shupe, who was aboard the Polarstern as part of the expedition's first rotation, likened it to "a floating dormitory" that also happens to be a research lab.

"[You're] in close quarters with lots of people. You're constantly seeing each other. There's basically no privacy," he said.

Members of the MOSAiC's data team pictured in their office on board the Polarstern on Sept. 24, 2019. (Esther Horvath/Alfred Wegener Institute)

Data to 'feed science' for next decade

Researchers are learning everything they can about the Arctic's climate, from how sunlight affects the biology of anything living beneath the ice, to how snow insulates sea ice and affects the movement of energy.

Measurements of tiny airborne particles can also help shed light on the role they play in trapping heat or reflecting sunlight, especially if there's less ice and more open ocean as temperatures in the Arctic continue to rise.

"A lot of this information that we're getting is going to feed science for the next decade or more. So a lot of those results … are probably not going to be distilled out of the data until, you know, some time down the road," he said.

As Ashjian prepares for the long overdue return home, she's now thinking about how to adjust to life at home where physical distancing, personal protective equipment and "concerning trips to the supermarket" have become the norm.

Given the circumstances, a part of her wishes she could stay on the Polarstern a little while longer.

"I kind of actually grieve for my world quite a bit, thinking about how different it's going to be when I go home," she said.

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Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Carin Ashjian produced by Yamri Taddese.

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