scorecardI was trapped on a boat in the Arctic for almost 5 months while on a science expedition because of the pandemic — here's what it was like
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I was trapped on a boat in the Arctic for almost 5 months while on a science expedition because of the pandemic — here's what it was like

Molly O'Brien   

I was trapped on a boat in the Arctic for almost 5 months while on a science expedition because of the pandemic — here's what it was like
Careers5 min read
  • Gina Jozef embarked on the MOSAiC Expedition to the Arctic to join the exploration ship, the Polarstern, in January to conduct research for her PhD in atmospheric sciences at UC Boulder.
  • When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jozef's team was in the middle of their expedition, and it soon became clear that their trip wouldn't be able to end in April as planned.
  • Jozef and her team primarily flew drones over the area they were in to collect data on how the Arctic transitions from winter to summer — which can help improve climate observation models and inform climate change prediction models.
  • Jozef and her crewmates stayed nearly two extra months in the Artic before it was finally decided that they would have to sail the Polarstern to a group of Norwegian islands to safely disembark.
  • This is her story, as told to freelance writer Molly O'Brien.

My experience throughout the coronavirus crisis has been very unlike that of most other people. While everybody was stuck at home on lockdown, I was surrounded by people constantly. I never thought that being on a ship in the middle of the central Arctic sea ice pack — one of the most remote places on the planet — that I would be in one of the most social and free-moving places on the planet.

While people back home needed to remain six feet apart from anybody nearby, on the Polarstern, it was difficult to ever be more than six feet apart from the closest person, as we were living and working in such close quarters. It was a wild concept to digest. I knew that as soon as I went back home to land I would be joining the rest of the world in social distancing practices, and I would be missing my times on the Polarstern where there were no such rules.

Being in close quarters with the same people for so long was very challenging at times

In such a hectic environment, after a stressful or tiring day of work, sometimes I would just want to be alone.

Another big challenge was remaining so secluded from my friends and family back home. We did have the ability to use WhatsApp and email for free through a satellite connection, or we could pay an expensive price for use of the satellite phone to make a short call — but there was no possibility for any sort of video chatting to seeing someone's face, aside from sending and receiving low-quality pictures over email.

Our crew stayed in shape with on-board boot camps

I learned that just a little bit of laughter with friends each day made all the difference in my overall mood throughout the months I was stuck in the Arctic. I hope to carry this prioritization of personal and social time, to balance out a heavy work schedule, into the future of my career.

During my stay on the Polarstern, I worked from 8:15 a.m. until around 9:00 p.m.

During my stay on the Polarstern, work was my daily focus, which was flying drones to collect data about the boundary layer atmosphere conditions (temperature, humidity, pressure, wild speed, and turbulence). The main goal of this project was to collect data throughout the transition from Arctic winter to summer, which will be used to improve climate observation models. We also flew drones, called DataHawk2, over leads (cracks in the sea ice exposing open ocean) to collect data. With a warming climate, there will be an increase of leads in the Arctic sea ice, and we want to know what that means for the atmospheric conditions.

While focusing my attention on my work did help distract my mind from thinking about distressing things like the pandemic and my unknown return home, my schedule was also exhausting.

Eventually, food and fuel was running shorter on the Polarstern, but, more significantly, some people were starting to get anxious about the unknown status of our return trip. When it became clear that our extended stay in the Arctic was leading to severe mental distress for some of the participants, an emergency evacuation flight was scheduled to take seven participants out of the Arctic and back home on two twin otter aircrafts.

As for the rest of us, we continued to wait patiently for the new plan to get us home. Meanwhile, we continued our scientific work, so instead of completing just one of six legs of the expedition, we actually completed two legs, which allowed the total number of intended legs to be shortened from six to five.

By early June, we were on our way to Svalbard, a group of islands located between Norway and the North Pole

On June 4, the Polarstern met two research vessels that were carrying the next leg of participants in Isfjorden outside of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. We spent five days exchanging knowledge, cargo, and people between the ships. On June 8, the Polarstern, now carrying the next leg of participants, headed back north into the sea ice pack to reestablish the ice cam, and carry on the goals of the MOSAiC.

Meanwhile, myself and the rest of the leg three participants sailed back to Germany after being gone for nearly twice as long as originally intended — ending our unintended 4.5 month long quarantine from the coronavirus, and thrusting us back into a world completely different than the one we left behind when we first set sail in January.

Before we disembarked from the ship, we gave our last hugs to each other as we knew such a thing would no longer be allowed on land

I then went into another two week period of quarantine, which was required after international travel. While each of my days in quarantine was pretty much the same as the rest, I did find it uplifting to be able to FaceTime or Zoom with family or friends. After not having access to phone calls or video chats while in the Arctic, it was really nice to finally be able to see and talk to my friends and family, even if not in person. And, especially since I just returned from a major expedition, I have stories to tell, so I'm catching up with friends who I may not otherwise be in close contact with at this time.

Now that I'm home, my challenges differ a lot from the challenges I faced in my unintended "quarantine" on board the Polarstern. After some of the most exciting months of my life, I am spending my days mostly sitting on the couch searching for the motivation to do something besides watch Netflix all day, while simultaneously trying to decompress from and process the most incredible journey of my life so far.

I will spend the next three and a half years using the data I gathered, as well as the data still being collected by my colleagues who replaced me in the field, to write my dissertation for my PhD — and hopefully make some contributions to climate change predictions along the way.

If Gina's journey sounds interesting to you, you can check out her blog here and read about her personal experiences on this expedition.