How to return from the Arctic during a pandemic


Alexey Niubom is a 32-year-old Russian researcher who left his home in St. Petersburg at the end of February to participate in MOSAiC, the most important Arctic scientific mission ever. Together with a hundred researchers, Niubom was chosen to participate in the third round of the mission, which began in November 2019 and has yet to end, thus spending several months aboard the icebreaker ship Polarstern. The mission is going well but for Niubom it was quite difficult, once his assignment was over, to return from the Arctic to Russia during a pandemic.

– Read also: Stories and images from Polarstern

Come he told l’Atlantic, in the initial plans Niubom – who arrived on the Polarstern after more than a month of travel on another ship – would have to work in the Arctic until the end of April, to perform a series of tests and studies on seismic tremors near the North Pole. While he was on the Polarstern, however, there was a pandemic in the rest of the world that made it even more complicated, as well as risky, to switch researchers on schedule. To do this, a plane from Svalbard was sent somewhere in the Arctic ice – where the Polarstern is deliberately drifting – to unload the members of the new “shift” and bring home those of the previous shift.

Markus Rex, head of the mission, explained that the pandemic forced him and his collaborators to “change almost every logistical aspect of the mission” and Niubom was therefore informed, like all his companions, that his stay up there would last a while. ‘ more. “You can’t plan too many things in the Arctic,” he said, “and we found ourselves hostages to the situation.” He added, however, that it was also a situation in some ways of privilege, because he was certain that the coronavirus had not arrived on the ship and the absence of contact with other people made its arrival impossible.

At first it seemed that a Swedish ship could pick up Niubom and other mission members and bring them home, but the plan was skipped due to some restrictions on international travel, including by sea. Instead, it was decided that the Polarstern would free herself from the ice to turn around: and head south, instead of proceeding towards the North Pole, to meet two German ships on which to pick up Niubom and others. Doing so would have lost a few weeks of detection but would have managed to save the mission anyway.

In mid-June, with a week delay on the schedule, the Polarstern then met the two German ships off the coast of Svalbard, unloading the members of the third shift and loading those of the fourth. The German ships then landed in Bremerhaven in northern Germany, disembarking the researchers of the third shift. Some researchers managed to return to their country of residence despite the pandemic, someone else had to surrender to the fact that for several days there would be no flights that would suit them. Niubom was among them, because there were no scheduled air connections between Germany and Russia. He was then asked to spend a few weeks in a Bremerhaven hotel: something that, after months on board the Polarstern, did not particularly appeal to him.

With the help of Elena Tschertkowa-Paulenz, coordinator of the MOSAiC mission, Niubom was however able to work out an alternative travel plan. After finding a flight from Germany to Finland and making sure that the only way to cross the Finnish-Russian border was by private transport, he arranged to take a train from Helsinki to Imatra, near the border with the Russia. Upon arriving in Imatra, he removed from his suitcase a folding bicycle that Tschertkowa-Paulenz had previously bought for him on eBay while he was in Germany.

Niubom said that taking a bicycle by plane cost almost as much as the bicycle and that after the flight the bike arrived in Finland rather shabby and with broken lights, but basically intact.

Without internet connection, without great information on the roads to go and with a baggage much too big for that folding bike, Niubom still managed to get to the border “asking for directions on the way to Russia”. Arriving at the border, after about an hour and a half pedaling, Niubom was detained at the Russian customs and discovered that he was not allowed to leave on his own vehicles but had to be picked up by some family member. After a few hours he still managed to convince those in charge, obtaining the possibility of calling a taxi to continue towards his home in St. Petersburg. Speaking toAtlantic of his small business, he said that “those who don’t take risks don’t drink champagne.”

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