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Arctic Researchers Return Home To A Pandemic


A ship that was supposed to remain frozen in Arctic ice for a year is taking a detour. Since October, the German icebreaker Polarstern has been drifting in the Arctic Ocean while scientists onboard collect data to try to better understand climate change. Now, despite many obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic, a personnel swap is about to begin. As Ravenna Koenig reports, scientists who've been at sea since January will be released into a changed world.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: If you're going to spend a year frozen into the Arctic Ocean, you've got to have contingency plans. But one for a global pandemic...

MATTHEW SHUPE: Yeah, we did not anticipate this.

KOENIG: That's Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado and co-coordinator of the expedition known as MOSAiC, or the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. The group of scientists who left shore in late January were expecting to come home in early April, but their return date was pushed back.

SHUPE: We're going to unfortunately have to bring the ship out, and this is not part of the original plan. But it's the way logistics play out right now.

KOENIG: For the scientists on Polarstern, the virus is something they've only experienced through limited news reports and communications with people back home. Carin Ashjian is a biological oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is currently on the ship.

CARIN ASHJIAN: It's actually quite surreal because when I started this expedition, I thought that what I was going to be doing was the thing that's really way out there. And then it turns out that my life here is actually pretty normal (laughter) compared to what it's like back home.

KOENIG: For Ashjian and her colleagues on Polarstern, an almost unimaginable shift is on the horizon.

ASHJIAN: We have a long trip, and then you think about going home. And home is - it's not just a place, but it's the way you live your life. And my life is gone now.

KOENIG: After so much time away, Ashjian would normally look forward to going to work and visiting with friends and family when she got back. She says it's hard to not know when she'll be able to do that again.

Jenny Hutchings, an ice researcher at Oregon State University, says that she's looking forward to reuniting with her 12-year-old son, who's been stuck at home for almost two months. She says she thinks he's doing OK since he can talk to friends on social media, but she wants to be there to support him. When it comes to what homecoming will feel like outside her house, she can't even begin to imagine.

JENNY HUTCHINGS: I'm envisioning that it will be culture shock. I don't even know how I will interact with the people greeting us or the customs agents as we get off the ship. I'm sure it's going to be a very different interaction from any I’ve ever had before.

KOENIG: Meanwhile, the team of researchers who are going to replace those getting off the Polarstern are going through their own disorienting transition. They've spent over two weeks in quarantine and received several rounds of coronavirus tests that all came back negative. And now they're in an isolated environment where social distancing is being phased out.

MELINDA WEBSTER: When we got our results back, everyone tested negative. The first question that came up was, when can we hug one another (laughter)?

KOENIG: That's Melinda Webster, a sea ice researcher from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

WEBSTER: Of course, we're just going to be confined in another place, but at least we can act a bit more normal now.

KOENIG: Given how the logistical obstacles of the mission multiplied with the pandemic, Webster says she's just glad it's still going.

WEBSTER: I'm grateful that we can actually continue this work. I really wasn't expecting it to be possible, but here we are.

KOENIG: The Polarstern will meet up with three other vessels in a fjord near Svalbard, Norway, in the coming days and exchange personnel, cargo and fuel before going back to the ice. The new group of scientists expects to be there until August. They'll be in their own form of social isolation, relying primarily on email, texting and headlines to keep in touch with the shifting world. For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.