There is "lockdown". And then there is lockdown.
Those who have spent the past weeks allowed out only to exercise and visit the shops
might spare a thought for the passengers and crew of Polarstern (Pole Star), pictured above.
Polarstern is an icebreaker belonging to the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany,
and her ship's company are in a different class of lockdown entirely. Their vessel is afloat in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean,
and communications are so minimal as to preclude phone calls, let alone Zoom. Only pictureless messages and emails are possible.
Polarstern is the location of MOSAIC, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate.
She sailed from Tromso, in Norway, on September 20th 2019 and travelled to a point at latitude 85 degrees North.
Here, mimicking the first high-Arctic voyage, made in 1893 by Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer,
her captain fixed her into an ice floe that carried her along at about 7km/h, courtesy of an ocean current called the transpolar drift stream.
Her closest approach to the pole itself, 156km, was on February 24th.
Things have not, however, gone according to plan. The idea was for a revolving cast of 300 scientists each to spend two months on board.
This would have permitted specialists in the study of different seasons and conditions—winter or summer ice, say—to be there at the appropriate moment,
and would also have had the benefit of protecting everyone from cabin fever.
A planned rotation in April had, though, to be cancelled.
Norway, the new shipmates' intended departure point, had closed its borders in response to covid-19.
That left the original company with no liberation date. Eventually, two transfer ships with the newbies on board sailed from Bremerhaven, in Germany.
And on May 17th Polarstern broke free from her icy prison and headed south to meet them off the coast of Svalbard.
On June 8th she began the return trip, and arrived back at her original piece of ice (which had moved) on June 17th,
to resume drifting with it until she breaks free in September, in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard.
The coronavirus has not changed MOSAIC's objectives, however.
These are to study the structure of Arctic ice and how this changes with the seasons,
and to look at the air above that ice, the water below and the creatures living in that water—and, indeed, in the ice itself. All of these are interlinked.
They also link the place with the wider world, for the Arctic is both a recorder and a driver of climate change.
It is a recorder because the visible difference between ice and water,
and the obvious relationship between global temperatures and the amount of ice around,
mean together that the ice's waxing and waning shows in an easily graspable way how things are changing.