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story.lead_photo.caption In this photo provided by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut and taken on May 6, 2020, Anna-Lena Bohlen, right and Eberhard Kolhberg enter the room of a MOSAiC scientist to take a coronavirus test, in Bremerhaven, Germany. They prepared for icy cold and trained to watch for polar bears, but a pandemic just wasn't part of the program. Now dozens of scientists are sitting in quarantine, waiting for permission to sail forth and capture a crucial moment in the polar calendar that's essential to their year-long Arctic research mission. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut via AP)

BERLIN -- They prepared for icy cold and trained to be on the watch for polar bears, but a pandemic just wasn't part of the program.

Now dozens of scientists are waiting in quarantine for the all-clear to join a yearlong Arctic research mission aimed at improving the models used for forecasting climate change, just as the expedition reaches a crucial phase.

For a while, the international mission looked like it might have to be called off, as country after country went into lockdown because of the virus, scuppering plans to bring fresh supplies and crew to the German research vessel Polarstern that's been moored in the high Arctic since last year.

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News of the pandemic caused jitters among those already on board, said Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and co-leader of the MOSAiC expedition.

"Some people just wanted to be home with their families," he said in a video interview from the German port of Bremerhaven, where he and about 90 other scientists and crew have been kept in isolation to ensure they're virus-free.

Organizers at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research managed to fly out a handful of people via Canada last month. The rest of the crew will be exchanged with the help of two other German research ships that will meet the Polarstern on the sea ice edge.

That upcoming rendezvous will force the Polarstern to abandon its current position for three weeks at a critical time in the Arctic cycle.

"We are on the cusp right now of the onset of the sea ice melt season and that's a really important transition," said Shupe.

"That could happen when the ship is gone," he said. "It's a distinct risk we face."

To avoid missing out on key data, researchers will leave some instruments behind, including a 36-foot tower used for atmospheric measurements, and hope that it's still there when they return.

"The ice could just come together and destroy everything," said Shupe. "Hopefully that doesn't happen."

Adding to the problem is the fact that the sea ice is cracking up and moving about earlier than anticipated, a sign of possible future changes to the Arctic if global warming continues.

A Section on 05/11/2020

Print Headline: Arctic scientists wait in quarantine

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