Coronavirus shutdown forces research project to miss critical start of Arctic ice melt

From Polar Bear Science

Posted on April 28, 2020 |

The worldwide coronavirus lockdown has meant that the MOSAiC research project, which deliberately froze the icebreaker Polarstern into the Arctic Sea ice last fall, will miss taking scientific measurements during several critical weeks of the melt season (one of the main reasons for the project).

Polarstern 2020 location as of April 27 to the North of Svalbard_Graphic_courtesy of AWI

According to a report in the High North News (28 April 2020), at 27 April the Polarstern was between Svalbard and the North Pole (map above). In mid-May, the ship will break out of the ice and proceed south to waters off Svalbard (expected to take about a week) to meet up with two German icebreakers for a high-seas exchange of crew and restock provisions, the only option available after the coronovirus lockdown in Svalbard meant the original plans had to be scuttled. And while waiting for the upcoming research upheaval and breaking free of the ice, the crew of the Polarstern recently reported a visit from a polar bear wandering the ice hunting for seals.

Polarstern 2020_NATURE 24 April 2020_coronovirus forces expedition to miss start of ice melt Credit_Michael Gutsche

From a report in NATURE (24 April 2020, see image above),”Coronavirus shutdown forces research ship to break out of Arctic ice” (my bold):

When scientists were planning MOSAiC — an epic research expedition that would remain trapped in Arctic sea ice for one year — they considered the North Pole’s hazards. They worried about hypothermia, isolation, crushing ice and polar bears. They had dozens of contingency plans. But no one anticipated a pandemic.

“The idea of leaving the camp and floe was certainly not something we would have considered in the original rotation plan,” Fong says. “But given what we’re encountering now, I think it’s an important compromise that recognizes that the human dimension to the work we do is very, very important.”

The pandemic also means coordinators are using meticulous precautions to ensure that no one carries the virus to the ship. The next rotation of scientists will arrive in Hamburg, Germany, on 1 May and go to Bremerhaven by private bus. There, they will be tested for the virus before going into individual quarantine. Assuming everyone is negative, they will undergo safety training in group isolation. After two weeks, they will travel to Svalbard on two German research vessels and board Polarstern before it returns to the research camp.

Although scientists plan to leave the research station mostly intact, certain measurements will have to stop. The remotely operated vehicle that dives into the ocean twice a week will be pulled out of the water. The tethered balloon that monitors the atmosphere will be packed away. And the scientists’ continuous collecting of ice and snow samples across the floe will stop.

“We’re going to do the best we can with these constraints,” says Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric and oceanic scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-leader of MOSAiC. “But in the end, it’s a bummer.”

That is especially true, given that the gap will probably hit during a crucial time: when the ice begins to melt. Every spring, melting exposes dark ocean water, which absorbs more sunlight than does the ice. That warms the ocean further and spurs more melt in a vicious cycle that scientists are eager to study in detail.

It’s also when life in the Arctic flourishes. As sunlight penetrates farther into the ice and upper ocean, sea-ice algae and phytoplankton form massive blooms that provide meals for the rest of the Arctic food web. It has never been studied before in the central Arctic. Now scientists might miss it.

The High North News report says the Polarstern will likely reposition closer to the North Pole when it returns after resupply and staff exchange (my bold):

“While the first two crew exchanges at the end of 2019 and in late February happened as planned, an aerial transfer of staff and resupply out of Svalbard had to be canceled as Norwegian authorities have placed the archipelago on lockdown due to the pandemic.

In early April project leaders had considered chartering an icebreaker or moving a planned resupply mission of the icebreaker Odin from mid-June to mid-May. However, none of these options turned out to be feasible in light of the travel restrictions.

“The current situation also means [that] the international icebreakers that were originally meant to resupply the expedition are also prohibited from making any staff transfers,” explain officials from the Alfred-Wegener-Institute (AWI), the lead German government-funded research organization behind the expedition. “The massive restrictions on global travel hindered the third team exchange, which had been planned as an aerial transfer in early April, using the Spitsbergen archipelago as a base of operations.” …

Fortunately the drift corridor of the Polarstern has already taken the vessel in the direction of Svalbard and it is currently located between the North Pole and Fram Strait. “For the upcoming logistical operation, this position is advantageous. Some instruments on the MOSAiC ice floe will continue recording autonomously until Polarstern returns, while others will be dismantled,” explains the AWI.

The project leaders may also use the Polarstern’s departure from the ice as an opportunity to relocate the ice camp closer to the North Pole. This possibility has always been part of the planning scenarios in case the ship drifted faster than anticipated and will not have an impact on the scientific research being conducted. “If we drift too far south, we will set up the Ice Camp again farther north, and continue our observations in a region where the Central Arctic is still covered with ice in the summer. We’re thrilled with the tremendous amount of data we’ve been able to gather over the past seven months,” states expedition leader Prof Markus Rex from the AWI.

Other reports of the coronavirus-lockdown-disruption of this research project are found here, here and here.

On a lighter note, on 23 April 2020, while waiting to break out of the ice for the crew exchange mid-May, the Polarstern crew had a visit from a polar bear  (below):

Polarstern 2020 polar bear 4th week April_photo1_Nr1_JuliaSchmale_web

This past week [23 April 2020 according to one of the photos] we had the first polar bear sighting of leg 3. In the early morning hours, a curious male polar bear walked through the Central Observatory, checked out a few installations, played with a rubber fender, and continued on to about 800 meters from the ship. There it sat near a small crack in the ice for almost two hours, likely waiting for a seal to surface. It caused no damage and, given that no one was outside working at the time, led to very minor disruptions in our work. [my bold]

Polarstern 2020 polar bear_April_photo3_sfons_2020 04 23_Nr1_Steven Fons

‘The polar bear viewed from the bridge of Polarstern. Here, it is standing behind Met City near a small lead, likely waiting for a seal. Photo by Steven Fons. ‘

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April 29, 2020 6:06 pm

A delay in manually taking readings at a non-stationary locations is hardly devastating when one has already determined the outcome. Boondoggle, anyone?

Reply to  d
April 29, 2020 8:57 pm

True, but they have to be seen going through the motions so their predetermined outcomes might at least seem plausible.

Reply to  d
April 29, 2020 9:44 pm

But they haven’t stopped just manual readings, they have stopped automated readings too: “The remotely operated vehicle that dives into the ocean twice a week will be pulled out of the water. The tethered balloon that monitors the atmosphere will be packed away.“. I can’t for the life of me understand how those automated readings are affected by Wuhan virus. My nasty suspicious mind thinks the team have been embarrassed by the readings not supporting their pre-arranged results, and the Wuhan virus has been a very convenient excuse for terminating them.

Reply to  Mike Jonas
April 30, 2020 3:55 am

Sorry, what prevented the scientists from doing their work, they weren’t sick, were they?

Reply to  marty
April 30, 2020 9:56 am

marty April 30, 2020 at 3:55 am
Sorry, what prevented the scientists from doing their work, they weren’t sick, were they?

They will be prevented from doing the work because they won’t be there.

Reply to  Phil.
April 30, 2020 10:27 am

They were originally planning to be resupplied by helicopters from Svalbard. The closing of Svalbard meant that those flights would not be coming. As a result in order to get supplies and to swap crew, the ship had to move from where it has been to where it’s supplies are.

I understand why the submersible had to be pulled back up, I doubt it can sail as fast as the ship can. However I’m not so sure why the balloon had to be pulled down and stowed.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  marty
April 30, 2020 3:12 pm

It seems they change the crews every two months poor dears. Darwin was on the 27m long Beagle for 5 years and they circumnavigated the globe! Moreover his trip gave us the ‘meaning of life’ while the Polarstern had their long debunked science already written before they left.

I’m afraid I concur with Mike Jonas’s “nasty suspicious mind”. This is the third year of a deepening cooling and the ice extent and thickness have comeback with a vengeance. The huge Russian nuclear icebreaker took wealthy paying passengers ($120k a pop) in August to the N Pole. They hit pack ice 3-4m thick at Svalbard and found it continuous all the way to the pole and because of difficulty (had to back up many times) took several days longer than anticipated. It looks like ice extent will be notably greater this year. But we will get the obligatory “Worse than we thought report” anyway.

BTW the polar bear depicted is fat and very healthy, thats probably why he wasn’t a nuisance.

April 29, 2020 6:22 pm

“the MOSAiC research project, which deliberately froze the icebreaker Polarstern into the Arctic Sea ice last fall, will miss taking scientific measurements during several critical weeks of the melt season ”

A research discipline that is fixated on fearing the implications of their data are probably better off without data to fear. For decades we have been told how anthropogenic global warming is causing September minimum sea ice extent and-or volume to decline and that it is headed for zero where, without the albedo of sea ice, feedback warming will take over, spiral out of control with catastrophic results in terms of Greenland ice sheet melt, sea level rise, and all that meethane oozing out for feedback riding on feedback and the end of the planet.

All that, without the evidence that year to year changes in September minimum sea ice extent is related to global warming. Two links below:

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  chaamjamal
April 30, 2020 7:06 am

Hang on…

When the ice melts it uncovers the water allowing it to radiate is warmth into the sky. The ice forms an insulating layer on the water. It is FAR colder above the ice than under it most of the year.

There is a popular confusion about radiated energy and visible energy. Ice is white in the visible wavelengths but not in IR. It is quite dark. Water is black in IR so cools very effectively by radiation as soon as it is uncovered.

Water gains more from visible wavelengths than ice, which is reflective of it. But both are black to IR.

The question is whether there is net warming from the Arctic. This question is never addressed. The argument presented in the media is that as ice is bright white and water (and bare land) are dark, therefore it will be warmer in the Arctic (all year) if the ice disappears in summer.

Fair enough, it is an interesting question but hardly describes the system. The longer there is no ice cover, the more the bulk of the Arctic Ocean has time to cool. Is anyone thinking that there is a net gain of energy from the sun by the Arctic Ocean? That the temperature of the ocean is dependent on local insolation?

The Arctic had a brutal winter this season, so much so an ozone hole appeared for the first time in ages. The Greenland ice sheet mass is way up. These hardly portend a meltdown.

BTW is everyone aware that Dutch sailors went to an ice-free 88 N in 1665? One whaling captain went past the N Pole between 1665 and 1885 when it seems the bulk of the Arctic ocean was ice-free each summer.

Reply to  Crispin in Waterloo
April 30, 2020 10:34 am

The amount of energy from visible light that is absorbed depends on a number of factors.
The first is the requirement that there actually be light to absorb. For much of the year in arctic waters, this first requirement rarely met.
Another is the angle of incidence, at low angles most of the visible light is reflected, not absorbed.
Even in the middle of summer, the sun never gets very high up there.
As a result, for most of the arctic, loss of sea ice means a net increase in the amount of energy being emitted.

Another factor is that ice slowly get’s darker the older it gets, as soot and dust collect on it.

April 29, 2020 6:26 pm

Every now and then some good news story comes out of the covid=19 epidemic. The failure of the predetermined MOSAIC research project boondoggle is an example.

April 29, 2020 6:29 pm

Back in 2007, an address to the American Geophysical Union claimed Arctic summers could be ice free by 2013. Indeed, it was said,
“may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative.”

Those six years to an ice-free Arctic are now twelve and are soon to be thirteen…

Reply to  Centre-leftist
April 30, 2020 10:35 am

Which will come first, an ice free arctic, or fusion power?

Smart Rock
April 29, 2020 6:42 pm

Every spring, melting exposes dark ocean water, which absorbs more sunlight than does the ice. That warms the ocean further and spurs more melt in a vicious cycle that scientists are eager to study in detail“(my bold)

The use of language gives away the underlying philosophy. The spring melt is a BAD THING and it’s HUMAN CAUSED and it’s GETTING WORSE and we’re going to collect the data to prove it.

Poor Alfred Wegener, must be turning in his grave. He collected data before he reached his conclusions.

Reply to  Smart Rock
April 29, 2020 7:09 pm

You left out the most important part:

“It’s also when life in the Arctic flourishes.”

Translation: We don’t want life to flourish.

But their reasoning for abandoning aspects of this project is consistent with their Climate Change religion. Their reaction to CoViD-1984 is based on the more terrifying projections of a grossly invalid model. That is, the hypothetical Models, rather than unmolested empirical evidence that is observable and testable, guide their policies regardless of the reality.

The dramatically wrong hypothetical Climate Models similarly dictate their policies despite the abundance of refuting evidence.

Gordon Dressler
April 29, 2020 6:53 pm

Huh??? Why can’t they just use some supercomputers to model the start of the Arctic ice melt.

Such has been done for a few other things, with many scientists approving.

Reply to  Gordon Dressler
April 29, 2020 9:37 pm

This way get outside to do cool stuff and get to visit Scandinavian countries.

April 29, 2020 8:31 pm

The real tragedy is this IS the last ice melt. This is the last year for ice in the Arctic as we have reached the final tipping point. It will all be gone by August not to reappear for at least a thousand years.

Interested Bystander
Reply to  rbabcock
April 29, 2020 9:30 pm

And yet there is not a thing we can do about it.

There was a story dating back to 2017 about a trail being exposed in Norway where artifacts from the Vikings circa 800 AD are being found as the ice sheet retreats. I wonder how it could be that the world in 800 AD was about as warm as it is now. Probably not from anthropogenic causes.

Reply to  rbabcock
April 30, 2020 7:18 am

/sarc ?

David S
Reply to  rbabcock
April 30, 2020 11:26 am

Care to wager?

Martin Howard Keith Brumby
April 29, 2020 9:18 pm

“Worse than we thought”
There, that’s their conclusions, agreed months ago. They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

Gordon Dressler
Reply to  Martin Howard Keith Brumby
April 30, 2020 9:10 am

Oh, the phrase “worse than we thought” goes back far earlier than that . . . likely within the first 1000 years of homo sapiens starting to use higher-level brain functions to consider future events, and in conjunction with developing social communication skills. As in, “This cold spell is worse than we thought it would be.”


tsk tsk
April 29, 2020 9:33 pm

Pocket change for Bloomberg or Steyer or Gates. Why don’t they put their money where their mouth is?

Reply to  tsk tsk
April 30, 2020 10:38 am

Socialists never use their own money. That’s what government is for.

Joel O'Bryan
April 29, 2020 9:59 pm

I’m wondering if any of them have observed the Arctic Climate Catastrophe taking place right outside their view ports?
They should take Greta up there and drop her off at the North Pole so she can sob as a polar bear comes over to give her a taste.

Coeur de Lion
April 29, 2020 10:48 pm

I have a thousand quid which says that Arctic ice will bottom out above four million square kilometres in September 2020. That’s 16 times the area of Gt Britain. Any takers?

Robert W. Turner
Reply to  Coeur de Lion
April 30, 2020 10:10 am

I’d be careful making that bet on the grounds that a satellite could malfunction like it did about 8-9 years ago and sea ice extent could magically take a stepwise drop.

mr bliss
April 30, 2020 12:12 am

I’m sure they have already made up data to fill any gaps

April 30, 2020 12:45 am

It seems not irrelevant to point out the recent post at P Gosselin at NoTricks:
The information comes from the Norwegian Met institute so is presumably reliable.

April 30, 2020 1:19 am

“Wong & Minnett tried to separate the warming of the ocean from direct solar radiation in the visible spectrum, from potential theoretical warming from back-radiation. They found that task not possible”

“So despite the vast majority of back-radiation was coming from water vapor, Wong & Minnett stated they did not know whether the back-radiation was coming from CO2 or the clouds. Their paper was built on an assumption that all back-radiation was coming from CO2. A false assumption’

[1] The Response of the Ocean Thermal Skin Layer to Variations in Incident Infrared Radiation Elizabeth W. Wong Peter J. Minnett (23 March 2018)

Ed Zuiderwijk
April 30, 2020 2:06 am

What puzzles me is what the pandemic prevention measures have to do with the balloon or the underwater probe. Once you ensured your people are virus free there is nothing that could interfere with the program, it is business as usual. Are they using the pandemic as cover for other problems of the expedition? For instance that they did not measure what they thought they would?

Reply to  Ed Zuiderwijk
April 30, 2020 5:24 am

They are probably worried the expensive toys will not be there anymore when they come back.
Or get damaged by some storm or malfunction. Its pretty risky to leave the stuff there when there is nothing you can do when things go wrong.
Besides they probably need to keep a hole in the ice open for the probe to go into the water so if there is no one there to man the drill they can’t take any measurements.

No wild theory’s needed to explain this one.

All the best,

Reply to  Ed Zuiderwijk
April 30, 2020 7:11 am

I suggest you read the article. The Polarstern was due to be resupplied by ice-breakers, which would also bring in the new crew/staff, in early April. Due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus outbreak this was no longer possible. Consequently they had to find another means of doing it. Apparently this can only be done using the german ships which are not icebreakers, and then only after a 14 day quarantine of the crew and staff. This means that this will have to be done in late May outside the ice. However given the rapid drift that has taken place it’s possible that the Polarstern will have entered the Fram Strait by then with the associated break up of ice and they would have to adopt the previous plan of reentering the ice further north and restarting the drift. What would interfere with the program would be having to leave the ice for the resupply etc. which takes time.

April 30, 2020 2:11 am

What if it doesn’t melt enough and they get stuck there?

April 30, 2020 2:23 am

Power, 4 diesels 20,000 HP

Right-Handed Shark
April 30, 2020 3:56 am

Alternative title:

Scientists discover Arctic is COLD; make excuse not to return.

Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
April 30, 2020 7:24 am

That’s why they hoped to see rain in December at -30°C ???

Reply to  Krishna Gans
April 30, 2020 7:33 am
Text on Dec. 15th, 2019:

“From the scientific perspective I hope we will experience some of the unique processes occurring near the North Pole in winter. For example, there is an increasing occurrence of warm air intrusions into the Central Arctic, and we do now have the opportunity to study if they could lead to rain even in winter, and how that affects the snow and its microwave properties which is crucial for the interpretation of satellite data,” Christian Haas explains

Reply to  Krishna Gans
April 30, 2020 8:46 am

Since “snow” is a thing of the past,
climate scientists are used to call it “white rain”,
but since they don’t want to be targeted as racists, they actually use “rain”.

Robert W. Turner
Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
April 30, 2020 10:06 am

I thought the article should have started: “A pseudoscientist, bureaucrat, and chicken little walk into a bar.” Only the combination of these three could have come to the conclusion that data collection in the Arctic must be disrupted due to a virus infecting people thousands of miles away.

But at least I learned something, water apparently is “dark”. I must be color blind because it looks transparent to me.

Jeff Meyer
April 30, 2020 7:36 am

Oh my… All those Ice Breakers! Are they not helping make the arctic ice free! Well at least they are using wind and solar for propulsion!

April 30, 2020 8:20 am

Hahahaha, critical start…….

April 30, 2020 8:33 am

On the plus side, there won’t be any need to launch an expensive and risky rescue mission when their ship becomes stranded in the ice they didn’t expect to find. 😉

April 30, 2020 8:55 am

Beautiful picture with all this white water as far as your eyes can see.

Rick K
April 30, 2020 9:23 am

Excuse me, but what the hell is “dark ocean water”? And what does THAT have to do with the Arctic?

The ocean, any ocean… is “dark” as soon as the sun sets. I guess they’re trying to tell us that since it’s “dark” it absorbs more “heat” or solar insolation? What a crock!

April 30, 2020 9:53 am

Maybe I missed it in the article but why does everyone have to leave? Can’t there simply be airdrops of supplies? Or cargo pallets dropped off on the ice? Seems if the project is so critical the staff and crew would tough it out in the name science…

Reply to  RickS
April 30, 2020 5:30 pm

Scandinavia calls

Reply to  RickS
May 2, 2020 6:38 pm

The original airlift to Polarstern from Svalbard was cancelled because flights were shut down due to the pandemic. The Norwegian rules won’t allow the present crew to enter theie territory so they can’t be flown out.

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