After four months at sea, including two and a half months on board a German ice breaker locked in the Arctic ice cap, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Chris Marsay is on his way home. His return trip comes six weeks later than planned due to travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.
Marsay has been on board the research vessel Polarstern as part of a major international research project to study climate change in the Arctic named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or “MOSAiC.” Last fall the Polarstern sailed into the Arctic Ocean until it became locked in the ice. The plan was for the ship to drift with the ice for a year all the while serving as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change. Scientists were scheduled in shifts or “legs” to work for two to three months at a time. However, unable to exchange the science teams by either air or with another ice breaker, MOSAiC organizers decided to pull the Polarstern out of the ice pack and leave the research station for an estimated three weeks while the changeover takes place.
“My time working at the MOSAiC ice floe has come to an end, and I am currently traveling south on the Polarstern towards Svalbard where the exchange between personnel from legs three and four of the project will take place,” Marsay said. “Due to the travel restrictions in place because of COVID-19, it was not possible to carry out the exchange at the ice floe itself as originally planned.”
The replacement team is already at Svalbard aboard two other German vessels. They completed a two-week quarantine and multiple coronavirus tests before departure. The teams will exchange ship-to-ship in a fiord since Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, is closed to outside visitors because of COVID-19.
According to Marsay, his time at the MOSAiC ice floe has been eventful. “The ice was much more dynamic than it had been during the first months of the MOSAiC project,” he said. “Cracks and leads frequently opened up in the area around the ship, and the ice movement also formed ridges of ice blocks several feet high.”
All of these events restricted access to some research sites, but the work continued, providing new sampling opportunities for the researchers.
This was not Marsay’s first trip to the Arctic. A 2015 research cruise took him to the North Pole, but this trip was a new experience. “It’s been unique to witness the transition from winter to spring in the central Arctic Ocean,” he said. “During our time at the floe we experienced a minimum temperature of negative 40 degrees Celsius, not accounting for wind chill, and a maximum of zero degrees Celsius. The sun did not rise until two weeks after we arrived at the floe, and has not set since late March.”
Marsay also experienced windy days with storm-force winds and whiteout conditions due to blowing snow, and days with beautiful clear skies when the sun reflecting off the snow was dazzling, he said.
During his participation in MOSAiC, Marsay collected snow, ice cores, sea water and aerosol samples as part of our project studying the atmospheric deposition of trace elements in the central Arctic.
He also learned some new skills, including driving a Ski-Doo, and on several occasions he carried a rifle and served as a polar bear guard for colleagues.
“We on board will have been at sea for over four months by the time we get to Germany,” Marsay said. “When we started, the COVID 19 virus was not widespread outside of China.
“We have all been following the news from back home, and although we’re looking forward to getting home, everyone is expecting some initial difficulties getting used to the way that public life has changed while we’ve been away.”