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After months in the Arctic, scientist returns to a ‘surreal’ world back home

Carin Ashjian, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist, studied zooplankton on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean.
Carin Ashjian, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist, studied zooplankton on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean.Serdar Sakinan

In February, Carin Ashjian traveled to the Arctic Ocean aboard a German icebreaker to study zooplankton. While she conducted research on a desolate ice floe, the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world she had left behind. She wound up spending 4½ months in the Arctic until a replacement team of scientists could complete a quarantine.

“As I sit in my lab, photographing copepods,” she wrote to her colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “I reflect on how what I thought would be surreal (working on a ship frozen into the ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean) is now normal, and the world that I left behind is the one that is surreal. I cannot imagine what it is like at home.”

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In an e-mail exchange with Globe reporter David Abel this week, Ashjian recalled her time in the Arctic and her return to a changed world.

When did you get back?

I got back on June 16. We arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany, on June 15 on two German research vessels on which we had sailed from the fjord in Svalbard [a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean], where we exchanged personnel.

Was there anything you weren’t able to do on the mission that had been planned, as a result of the pandemic?

Actually, no. We were very lucky, and continue to be lucky, in that the MOSAiC project has been able to continue on as planned, despite the pandemic. However, we are seeing impacts to our ability to complete the laboratory analyses in as timely a manner as we had originally anticipated due to limited access to laboratories, changing personnel availability because of scheduling to avoid contact and spread of COVID, and also not everyone being able to participate on the ice as planned because of COVID. (Someone else replaced those people but of course that has impacts on the shore-side.)

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Any big-picture things you learned from your research?

My research is really focusing on the cycles and changes over the year, so we don’t have the full perspective yet, given that the project is not over. I would say that I was a bit surprised how long it took the ecosystem to ramp up once the sun came back in the spring. We left the floe in mid-May, and things were just starting to take off, in terms of primary production and the response of the zooplankton. (They rely on primary producers, such as ice algae and phytoplankton.)

How has reentry been since you returned?

Reentry has been slow. It is always hard to come back after an extended period at sea, or on the ice and this trip was particularly long (4.5 months) — and almost unworldly. And then add the necessity to adapt to the realities of life with COVID on top of that. It has been a slow process.

What’s most surprising or unexpected about life since you’ve been back?

I keep forgetting that COVID exists and then suddenly remember, “Oh no, can’t do that anymore.” I find working at home, the lack of interaction with colleagues, and the restrictions on travel (both work and pleasure) to be very tough. It is hard to imagine that I cannot go to Alaska (I do a lot of work there) for the next . . . I don’t know how long! And I really miss the casual interactions I have with people every day.

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Any lessons or takeaways you can share about your experience, and your return?

Be flexible and patient. Remember that nothing is sure about going on an expedition into the ice. Schedules can and will be disrupted. And cherish the chances you have to collaborate and work together, particularly with a diverse team looking at a wide array of diverse scientific interests.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.