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COVID-19 impacts Arctic research project

Monday, April 20, 2020 - 2:52pm
setting up the corer to collect ice core samples on the floe near Polarstern.

UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Chris Marsay is currently onboard an icebreaker ship that’s frozen solid in the Arctic ice cap. Marsay is part of a major international research project named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or “MOSAiC.” The German icebreaker Research Vessel Polarstern sailed into the Arctic Ocean last fall until it became locked in the ice. It will remain there, drifting with the ice for a year, all the while serving as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change. Here is an update from Chris.

Time is passing quickly on the RV Polarstern. I joined the ship at 88 degrees north a month ago, as part of the Leg 3 team of MOSAiC. At the time, the sun was still below the horizon, as it had been for Polarstern since early October. The temperature during my first week on board was around -40F, with wind chill of down to -75F. The sun returned on March 12 and, since the end of March, it no longer sets for us. We are currently at about 84.5 degrees north and continue with a mostly southward drift.

My working hours on board are split between collecting and processing samples of snow, ice cores and seawater for measurements of beryllium-7, and aerosols for measurements of beryllium-7 and trace metals such as iron. Beryllium-7 is a naturally occurring isotope produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays striking molecules of other elements. After formation, it quickly becomes associated with small particles (aerosols) and is carried to the Earth's surface. By calculating the inventory at the surface -- in this case, distributed between snow, sea ice and seawater -- we can calculate a deposition rate. By measuring the ratio of beryllium-7 to other elements in aerosols, we can then also calculate the deposition rate of those elements. The elements we are interested in include several that are nutrients for plankton in the surface ocean, including iron and zinc, and others that are pollutants, such as lead.

In between this work, I also help out colleagues as part of an ice-coring team to collect multiple cores for different projects. My job is to look out for polar bears on the ice, although there have been no polar bear sightings yet during Leg 3. I also observe the ice conditions from the ship's bridge.

Although the Leg 3 team joined Polarstern in early March, we have been at sea since late January. During this time, we have followed the unsettling news arriving from shore as the coronavirus pandemic has developed. The resulting disruption extends to the MOSAiC project. Widespread travel restrictions have delayed the changeover of personnel between Legs 3 and 4, which was due to take place in early April, and those of us currently on board are now unlikely to return to land before the end of May. There are mixed feelings about this on the ship. We realize that we are fortunate to be isolated from the restrictions on public life back home and are able to continue with our (slightly unusual) daily routines. But at the same time, it is hard for those on board to be separated from their loved ones for longer than expected and during a difficult time.

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Postdoctoral Research Associate

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