How far would you go to escape the coronavirus pandemic?
The MOSAiC expedition is a big, international research project to study the warming Arctic. For a year, scientists from all over the world are taking turns living on a German icebreaker that’s frozen into an ice floe while the ship drifts across the Arctic Ocean.
“So, looking around me from the ship’s bridge, I can see the ice stretching away to the horizon in every direction,” says Chris Marsay, a research associate at the University of Georgia.
He’s studying trace elements that get deposited on the surface of the ocean from the atmosphere — some good, like iron and zinc, which feed plankton — and some bad, like lead. He also occasionally takes his turn on polar bear guard duty, though he says none have been spotted since he started his stint on the boat.
When Marsay left for his three-month shift, the coronavirus was only known to be in China. No one on the ship has gotten it.
“We’re able to get on with our daily work,” Marsay says. “We sit together for our meals, and we sit together to chat in the evenings.”
Marsay and his colleagues were supposed to have left the ship last month, but because of the pandemic those flights were canceled.
“It’s been kind of surreal to hear of the restrictions on daily life from family and friends back home,” he says. “There have been plenty of conversations onboard about how strange it will be to get back and get confronted with a completely different way of life than that which we left in January.”
Now the plan is to break out of the ice and meet another ship, so people can rotate on and off. The new arrivals will be quarantined and tested.
Some worry for friends and family back home. But in a way, Marsay says he and the others feel lucky to be onboard.
“I never expected to come to the middle of the Arctic Ocean and have my daily life less restricted than it would back home,” he says. “But in many ways that’s certainly the case at the moment.”
Marsay says some onboard are eager to get back home. Others are just fine staying insulated from the virus, and all the measures to address it, as long as they can.