For Colorado Scientists On Yearlong Expedition To The Arctic, Coronavirus Came As Quite A Shock

EU Arctic Expedition
Frank Jordans/AP
German Arctic research vessel Polarstern is docked for maintenance in Bremerhaven, Germany, July 3, 2019.

From the start, the MOSAiC expedition figured to be the experience of a lifetime for Colorado scientists Matthew Shupe and Gina Jozef.

Shupe, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, was co-leader of MOSAiC, the biggest research mission ever to the Arctic. 

In September 2019 he boarded a ship called the RV Polarstern as it sailed for the North Pole, where it locked onto an ice floe and drifted across the ocean for a year to study climate change.

Jozef, a CU graduate student, joined the expedition in January. She spent her days at a workstation on the ice, piloting drones that measured meteorological conditions.

A few weeks after she arrived, the coronavirus swept across the world. 

Shupe, by then back home in Boulder, watched as the future of the mission fell into jeopardy.

“I've spent the last at least decade of my life working on this, and to see this pandemic perhaps jeopardize the mission, it was — it made me a little nervous,” he told CPR's Colorado Matters.

He spent days and nights working to recalibrate logistics and to reassure scientists who were stranded on the ship for months as countries imposed lockdowns and quarantines and closed their ports.

“The state of mind is an important thing when you're out there isolated in the central Arctic, cut off from the rest of humankind,” he said. “People out there didn't really have great access. They didn't really know how the pandemic was evolving and how it was hitting their own communities.’’

Jozef was among those stuck on the ship. While she waited, she kept in touch with home using WhatsApp and the occasional satellite phone call. She’d hoped to return to Boulder in April but instead, she made it back in mid-June and “came back to a world I didn’t recognize.”

Her friends and family had spent months adapting to COVID-19 restrictions but they came suddenly for her.

“On top of that, it was really strange to go from being with people (on the ship) all the time to back home where I had to quarantine by myself at my apartment for two weeks. It was just really a big shock in terms of day-to-day life.”

From the time the Polarstern launched in late 2019, the voyage was more complicated than scientists expected. The sea ice was so thin it was difficult to find a floe sturdy enough for the vessel to moor. Once the ship was established and he got outside to work, Shupe was surprised by the fragility of the surface.

“Every time I go to the Arctic the ice reveals itself in new ways,” he said. This time “the ice even displayed more of its personality. It was moving all the time.”

“Sometimes, if you really quiet yourself down, you can actually feel the ice move underfoot. And sometimes you can see, for example, pressure ridges forming as the ice pushes together. These big blocks of ice are kind of crunching together and you can hear the squeaks and the crunches.”

MOSAiC stands for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. Its goal was to produce precise, long-term measurements that will improve the models scientists use to study climate change and predict global weather patterns. Much of that work focused on the interaction of the changing sea ice, the atmosphere and the ocean itself.

Working at a station on the ice called Droneville, Jozef and her team launched drones to measure conditions such as temperature, pressure, wind speed and humidity in the lowest thousand meters of the atmosphere. 

“This gives us data about what the lower atmosphere looks like and how this can change from the late winter through the late summer,” she said. “Drones are not typically flown this far north so this data is really unique.”

The team always included a “bear guard,” someone who stood watch with a rifle and flare gun in case a polar bear approached. The closest one she saw, she said, was from the ship. 

Jozef blogged regularly during the trip and posted a video tour of the Polarstern, showing off a gym, sauna and bar. The accommodations weren’t bad, she said, but there wasn’t really space to get away from people.

Ultimately, getting Jozef and her colleagues off the boat meant changing the Polarstern’s schedule. The ship had to leave the ice for a while to rotate crews. That meant the hope of collecting data every day for a solid year went by the wayside, but Shupe said some equipment remained on the ice while they were gone.

“I guess we made the most out of these challenges that presented themselves,” he said.

Despite all of the uncertainty, he said, MOSAiC accomplished what he’d hoped it would. 

“The Arctic revealed itself for what it is right now, and that's [a] tremendous opportunity for us as scientists; to be there, to see the Arctic revealing itself as it is because that's what we're trying to study. And so I can only characterize this mission as definitely a huge success.”