COVID-19: How the Virus has frozen Arctic Research

COVID-19: How the Virus has frozen Arctic Research

on March 5, 2021

With the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has found itself in a global health emergency, which has caused a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and brought normal life around the world to a halt for the better part of a year. The Arctic Institute’s COVID-19 series offers an interesting compilation of best practices, challenges and diverse approaches to the pandemic applied by various Arctic states, regions, and communities. We hope that this series will contribute to our understanding of how the region has coped with this unprecedented crisis as well as provide food for thought about possibilities and potential of development of regional cooperation.

Within the Arctic Circle, polar research is a complex interdisciplinary field that covers most aspects of physical sciences, geosciences and life sciences, together with engineering and social sciences. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Arctic scientific community is overwhelming – researchers are missing an opportunity to conduct field work in the far North – from the depths of the Arctic Ocean to the atmospheric layers and beyond. The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has halted most of the Arctic research for the 2020 season, and most likely for the 2021 season.

Postponed for better times

Countries with interests in the Arctic have decided to postpone or cancel seasonal work in high latitudes this year.1) First, scientists do not want to spread the disease within local settlements and vulnerable Indigenous communities, as they often have limited access to health and financial resources. Second, cancelling field work helps avoid many new COVID-19 cases, as research team members usually work together closely both at observation sites and aboard research vessels. Moreover, COVID-19 has created much uncertainty and added challenges for the implementation of scientific projects both logistically and financially. While remote data collection continues, the international Arctic projects on climate change, oceanography, weather, biodiversity and other topics have been postponed until further notice, resulting in negative consequences for scientific circles. The consequences for the scientific circles are negative: in 2020 they are missing international cooperation and work with Indigenous communities.

Dealing with gaps in data

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought polar scientific activity to a near-standstill. Every single country studying changes in the Arctic has been affected by the global pandemic in 2020. For researchers this means there will be a ‘gap’ in long-time data collection, which is crucial for understanding the evolution of Earth. To understand global processes, like climate change, and to develop climate scenarios, scientists need information about year-to-year changes in weather, sea ice extent, permafrost dynamics parameters, etc.2) Without this data scientists are not able to make correct predictions in the future, as well as help local people in their everyday life as they face challenges associated with living in a rapidly-changing Arctic. Scientific data may help locals avoid natural disasters and health problems, as their close relationship to the land and reliance on it adapts due to climate change. Also, lack of knowledge about the region due to the research gap of 2020 may result in plenty of negative effects on food and water security, crops and fisheries, safety and other aspects of human life. Moreover, the cancellation of the projects focusing on monitoring of the natural hazards (such as floods, wildfires, permafrost thaw) causes delays in the work of local emergency warning systems in the Arctic.

Science at sea and on ice

The pandemic has also led to logistical challenges for the projects at the Arctic seas. Marine research expeditions have been either cancelled or shortened dramatically this navigation season. The priority aboard a research vessel is the safety and no risk for everyone. The Coronavirus shutdown has even forced the MOSAiC mission, the German icebreaker Polarstern trapped in the Arctic ice for one year, to leave its position to complete a crew changeover.3) In another significant example, the EastGRIP project, which is based in Greenland and focuses on climate change and understanding the role of ice streams beneath glaciers as a contributor to rising sea levels, has suspended ice drilling in 2020 to, after continuous work at the site for the past five years.4) Given all the circumstances, research teams worldwide have to change their plans and adapt to new conditions, which results in missing unique data, losing time, and contributes to shrinking budgets for the current projects.

The field season in the North is short, and many researchers work in a very narrow time frame to test new methods, measure parameters and collect samples. At the start of the 2020 Arctic field season (usually starting around May), as a response to the pandemic, countries implemented travel restrictions that limited entry to the national territories for foreign polar scientists. However, some national surveys and research groups were able to start the season in mid-summer, with help of local partnerships, which enabled them to carry out Arctic operations on both land and sea, but with special coronavirus precautions in place.5)

International cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic

Many polar expeditions are international in nature, but during 2020, nearly all of them became national due to travel restrictions. The Arctic States continue to conduct some limited research in the North working within their national territories;6)7). Trying to realize at least some plans, few expeditions of the non-Arctic states, as well as the European joint projects, took place in the Arctic high seas: Chinese scientists set off for the Arctic expedition aboard the icebreaker Xuelong 2 to collect sediment cores8) scientists from UK, Norway and Germany went for sampling in the Nordic and Greenland Seas to improve their understanding of essential climate variables there.9) And Svalbard remains a place of international scientific research, although the 2020 season is considered to be a missing year of data in Arctic reconnaissance, since many research projects have seen limited activity.10)

The most exceptional achievement of 2020 is the excellent opportunity to continue the international research expedition in the Arctic Ocean – the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) – amid the Covid pandemics. The German vessel Polarstern with support of the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov (later replaced by the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn) started the drift in the Arctic Ocean in October 2019. The MOSAiC expedition followed the Fridtjof Nansen’s drift theory – locked in the ice, the Polarstern with an international team on board was carried for hundreds of miles towards the North Pole. Unexpected challenges posed by the pandemic resulted in urgent replanning of team exchange procedures and the use of other German vessels as soon as international icebreakers were prohibited from being involved in the operations. Successful return of scientists from the Arctic adventure in October 2020 brought unique data that would be used for understanding of a rapidly changing Arctic.

Future of the polar research: vague but exciting

To be frank, the post-COVID-19 future is hazy and challenging for polar research. The remoteness and limited transportation options in the Arctic require for scientific activities to be planned well in advance. Without additional funding and supportive grants, some of the planned polar projects may never be implemented, which will likely affect early career scientists working on shorter low-budget projects.

The entire world has been hit by COVID-19, but additional support is needed for the polar community, which is experiencing a sharp slowdown. To compensate, the research community should work diligently to establish scientific collaborations for the future. Most importantly, nobody knows how long the coronavirus outbreak will curtail research at high latitudes, but the post-COVID recovery presents an excellent opportunity to increase investment in polar science, which would create new jobs, fulfill climate change commitments, and build a stronger research community.