Coronavirus Restrictions Force Cancellation of Arctic Research Flights

The organizers of a climate research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean have canceled a series of research flights after the Norwegian government imposed travel restrictions as part of its efforts to fight the coronavirus.

The flights, which were to have begun from Svalbard, a group of islands far north of mainland Norway, this month, already had been delayed when one participant tested positive for the virus while still in Germany. But late last week Norway imposed new restrictions requiring that any nonresident entering the country be placed in quarantine for two weeks. Those obstacles proved too logistically difficult to overcome.

“The highly unusual situation at the moment leaves us no choice,” Andreas Herber, an atmospheric scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, which organized the expedition, said in a statement. Dr. Herber, who is the coordinator of the airborne research efforts, said if other flights planned for this summer were able to go ahead, the institute would see if it was possible to fly more often to gather more data.

The yearlong expedition in the Arctic, known as Mosaic, is centered on a research icebreaker, Polarstern, that has been drifting with the pack ice for the past six months. A rotating team of researchers and technicians is on board studying the ice, atmosphere, ocean and other elements of the Central Arctic to better understand how climate change is affecting the region.

The flights, which would collect data on the atmosphere and sea-ice thickness, were designed to complement the research happening at the surface.

The roughly 100 researchers and crew aboard the Polarstern remain unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak. The next mission to bring a new team of researchers to the ship is scheduled for next month, when other aircraft are to make the trip from Svalbard and land on an ice runway built next to the Polarstern.

Wegener Institute officials said that those flights should still be possible, unless Norway imposes even more drastic measures. The current restrictions would require that, in addition to testing negative for the virus, anyone going to the ship arrive in Svalbard early enough to wait out the quarantine.

“The spreading wave of infections poses an immense challenge for this international expedition,” said Markus Rex, a climate scientist and the expedition leader. “Our safety concept represents a commensurate response to the current situation. That said, no one can predict how the situation will change over the next few months.”

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