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Arctic expedition delayed but not beaten by coronavirus outbreak

The £122 million expedition set out last September with 100 scientists and crew from 17 nations on board.

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Polarstern in the ice (Michael Gutsche/Alfred-Wegner-Institut via AP)

Polarstern in the ice (Michael Gutsche/Alfred-Wegner-Institut via AP)

Polarstern in the ice (Michael Gutsche/Alfred-Wegner-Institut via AP)

Organisers of a year-long international Arctic science expedition say they have found a way to keep going despite difficulties caused by the pandemic lockdown, but it will require a three-week break in the mission.

Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research said the expedition ship RV Polarstern will leave its position in the high Arctic, breaking through surrounding sea ice to rendezvous with two German vessels bringing fresh supplies and crew.

The manoeuvre is necessary because travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus make a planned resupply by plane and ship from Norway impossible.

Expedition leader Markus Rex told the Associated Press the lockdown could have scuttled the remainder of the mission.

“For a long time it was on a knife edge and there was even a possibility that the expedition might have to be broken off,” he said.

The 140-million-euro (£122 million) expedition set out last September with 100 scientists and crew from 17 nations on board.

As temperatures in the Arctic plummeted and the ocean surface froze over last autumn, scientists built a research camp on the ice with the Polarstern as their base.

It’s one of the last human communities in the world where a hundred people can have a barbecue togetherMarkus Rex

Mr Rex said expedition members will have to pause numerous scientific measurements during the three-week supply run, but this is preferable to abandoning the mission.

“In view of the massive challenge caused by the global pandemic, we’re very glad that we can do this,” he said. If all goes well, the Polarstern will return to its research post and continue the expedition until October as planned.

Two aircraft that came in via Canada were able to land on the ice next to Polarstern on Wednesday and pick up seven team members who urgently needed to return home, but the planes were too small to allow the larger crew rotation and resupply required.

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Seven crew members were flown out (Christian R Rohleder/Alfred-Wegener-Institut/AP)

Seven crew members were flown out (Christian R Rohleder/Alfred-Wegener-Institut/AP)

AP

Seven crew members were flown out (Christian R Rohleder/Alfred-Wegener-Institut/AP)

Mr Rex said incoming crew members have spent 14 days in quarantine in the German port city of Bremerhaven to ensure they are coronavirus-free.

Being cut off from the rest of the world on a sea of ice has afforded those on the expedition small perks not possible elsewhere right now, said Mr Rex.

“It’s one of the last human communities in the world where a hundred people can have a barbecue together,” he said.

PA