Icebreaker Polarstern goes south | Polarjournal
After its long period of service in the Arctic ice, the Polarstern arrived back in Bremerhaven on October 12. After repairs and maintenance work, the ship will now start its Antarctic season and will not return home until the end of April. Picture: AWI / eventfive

All the scientific success of the MOSAiC expedition would not have been possible without the research icebreaker Polarstern. For the ship served as a working platform and as a living space for the expedition members. After its return, the ship was allowed to “rest” for a few weeks in Bremerhaven. But now things are getting serious again: The Antarctic season of the Alfred Wegener Institute is starting and the ship will serve as a transporter and research platform. Because of COVID, the season will also be different than usual.

Instead of flying from South Africa, this year’s Antarctic expedition participants will set off on their voyage from Bremerhaven. They will leave from the homeport on 20 December 2020, and sail non-stop on board Polarstern to Atka Bay in the Antarctic. There, from the mooring at the ice edge, passengers and supplies will travel the final ten kilometres to the Neumayer Station III by snowcat and snowmobile. “This direct journey is just one of a whole catalogue of measures we have put in place to prevent the introduction of the coronavirus to the Antarctic and the Neumayer Station,” says Dr Tim Heitland. The former Neumayer overwinterer works as a medical coordinator at the Logistics Department of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), where he is responsible e.g. for training the overwintering team. “We believe that we have found the best possible way to exchange the overwintering teams and also to bring the technical and scientific staff for the service and maintenance of the station and the observatories to the Antarctic,” explains Heitland, who will be in charge of the journey to the Antarctic on board Polarstern and will also take over as head of the expedition at the Neumayer Station.

The German research station Neumayer III has been in operation since 2009 near Atka Bay in West Antarctica. Normally, the station is supplied with aircraft via Cape Town and the Russian Novo airbase. But due to Corona this year everything will be done by ship, back to the roots so to speak. Picture: Stefan Christmann, AWI

The arrival and the supply of the station will be different this year than usual. Instead of flying via Cape Town and Russia’s Novo airbase, the Polarstern will be used, just like before. “Combined with the quarantine beforehand, the roughly month-long outward journey means that the season for us is longer,” reports Heitland. The approach to Atka Bay is planned for around 20 January 2021. Then the 25 passengers can begin their work at the Neumayer Station: AWI researchers will service the observatories for air chemistry, geophysics and meteorology and discuss the long-term measurements with the old and new overwintering teams. The technicians will ensure that the station remains functional in terms of infrastructure.

«Despite all the precautionary measures, it’s still a polar expedition, and the remoteness alone demands respect and prudence on the part of all participants.»

Tim Heitland, Expedition Leader Antarctic Season

Over the past year, the entire AWI logistics team learned the coronavirus-specific precautionary measures that need to be taken for expeditions and the journeys involved, when they managed to keep the MOSAiC expedition with the Polarstern in the Central Arctic running despite the global travel restrictions. As in the summer, individual quarantining and several coronavirus tests are among the measures necessary prior to the start of the expedition. PCR testing equipment is available on board the research vessel and at the Antarctic station, and the hospital and pharmacies have been equipped with additional instruments, medicines and medical oxygen in case of emergencies. According to Heitland: “We have done our homework, and so I can now look forward to the Antarctic season without any additional worries. Despite all the precautionary measures, it’s still a polar expedition, and the remoteness alone demands respect and prudence on the part of all participants.”

The supply of the Neumayer III Station with the Polarstern takes place at the ice shelf edge. From here, goods and containers are pulled on sledges to the station, which is about 10 km away. The height of the shelf ice edge is no problem for the ship’s crane. Picture: Frank Roedel / AWI

And the Polarstern? The ship will perform other duties this season in addition to supplying the station. First point will be Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. There a new crew and an international scientific team for an oceanographic research expedition in the Weddell Sea will come on board. For these expedition participants, too, there will be strict protection concepts with quarantining and tests. On her return from this expedition to the Antarctic, the ship will collect the old Neumayer overwintering and technical teams, as well as the researchers. On the short journey back to Port Stanley, there are also memories of the ‘good old days’: huddling together is the order of the day. In order to be able to take the passengers from Neumayer, three instead of the now usual two people have to squeeze into each of the science quarters. But the quarters were always designed to accommodate three each, and most of the research will be completed, so the passengers should be able to cope for the few days until the ship drops anchor in the Falklands. From there, most of them will fly home, while Polarstern, with a small group of researchers, will continue on her return journey to Bremerhaven, where the Antarctic season will end in April.

AWI press release

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