From Scientific Lockdown To Civilian Lockdown
A view of icebreaker RV PolarsternPhoto credit: Ivo Beck

From Scientific Lockdown To Civilian Lockdown

MOSAiC scientist returns from a gruelling Arctic expedition to the COVID-19 lockdown

For those who find the COVID-19 lockdown a tough one to tackle, this 32 year old scientist of Indian origin based in Canada, Vishnu Nandan, could perhaps serve you an ounce of inspiration because he is raking it up right from the lap of ‘Mother Nature’.

For Nandan this lockdown at his home in Calgary is nothing but an extension of the scientific isolation that the young man went through under the most trying climatic conditions that one can ever imagine on the face of the globe for four long months.

What we are talking about is the Arctic Circle at its toughest conditions.

Nandan and his collegues before the RV Polarstern
Nandan and his collegues before the RV PolarsternPhoto credit: Lukas Piotrowski

Nandan had been part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or better known as the ‘MOSAiC’ Expedition. It is the world’s largest and one of its kind voyages to the Arctic Circle to get pristine data that would help the scientific community to predict future climate models more accurately.

Talking to The Lede from the safety of his home in Canada, the Thiruvananthapuram born and educated electrical engineer turned scientist puts the entire onus on nature’s tendency to throw the unexpected at one’s way and the never dying human spirit to adapt to all that is thrown at him.

Nandan says it is this same human spirit to endure that will keep the world alive even as the Coronavirus keeps raising its death toll on daily bases.

“Whatever you do or plan to do, you simply can’t beat mother nature. Whatever she puts in front of you, you will have to adapt to it. There is no other option. When we were on the ship in Arctic, Corona was the last thing we expected to hear. Even I was so stressed whether I will be able to meet my parents and my wife again. When will be able to able to reach home? Such thoughts kept lingering. But somehow you learn to adapt with it, and it becomes a part of your life. Such tough conditions in life teach you to face anything,’’ Vishnu Nandan told The Lede.

Scientists gathering data on ice
Scientists gathering data on icePhoto credit: Matthias Jaggi

For four months Nandan and several other scientists had been drifting aboard the RV Polarstern, a German icebreaker anchored to a large of piece of ice across the Arctic ocean collecting data on the ice itself.

The RV Polarstern in the darkness of the Arctic
The RV Polarstern in the darkness of the Arctic Photo credit: Matthias Jaggi

The scientist who had been on the second leg of the expedition returned to his home and to the lockdown since April 02. He says that it has been a transition for him from one lockdown to another, from a scientific one to a civilian one.

“Over the last four months I had been in scientific isolation and now I am in personal isolation. I don’t feel any difference as such. I just got two more weeks of time added to it. That’s all. It’s a new challenge in life and compared with what we faced at the Arctic Circle this is not so bad,’’ added Nandan.

Vishnu Nandan on his return from Polarstern
Vishnu Nandan on his return from Polarstern Photo credit: Marcus Huntermann

No Sun, Sub-Zero Temperature & Uncertainty

The MOSAiC kicked off in September 2019 much before the world had even heard the word COVID-19 with the RV Polarstern setting sail from the Norwegian port of Tromso with hundreds of scientists from as many as 20 countries and tons of scientific equipment to perform one of the greatest expeditions ever undertaken close to the North Pole

Scientists using equipment over ice
Scientists using equipment over icePhoto credit: Las Barthel

The idea had been to sail throughout the year, anchored on to a huge piece of ice and keep adrift, taking the route that the ice takes the ship to, all the while collecting precious data.

Nandan was in the second leg of the expedition that kicked off on December 20 which brought him and many others on to the ship well before COVID-19 had broken out in right earnest.

The next four months, Nandan says had been both the toughest as well as the most exciting time of his life.

“This was easily the best expedition that I ever had as a scientist. Yes, we had a lot of challenges including COVID-19. But then this was an experience that I will never forget. Just imagine from the moment I reached the ship it is pitch dark for 24 hours as there is no sun and that went on for 80 days at a stretch. Then you have nautical twilight, astronomical twilight, civil twilight after which the sun will slowly peek at you. From then when I am returning it is 24 hours sunlight. This is something I will never experience in my life again,’’ recollected an excited Nandan.

In the midst of these wonders of nature, Nandan like many others had been following a very strict schedule that involves collection of important data and their analysis.

Nandan who represents four Universities in Canada – Victoria, Waterloo, Calgary and Manitoba - had the primary task of deploying ground radar sensors over ice and collecting data using them.

Easy it may sound, anyone dealing with ice knows that recovering data and that too using radar sensors for the purpose on ice is no mean task as radar waves and the salt content on ice do not go well together.

Scientist Vishnu Nandan at work
Scientist Vishnu Nandan at workPhoto credit: Las Barthel

Add to this, the extreme cold weather and the need to work under artificial lights throughout days of complete darkness makes it unbelievably taxing on the human body.

“The normal temperature itself at the time of the year we were in the Arctic Circle was around -33 to -34 degree centigrade. But this time round it was very windy which made the temperature dip as deep as -56 degrees. There were even days we had warm storms with warm air intrusion from the southern latitudes and cold air from the Arctic being pushed down the southern latitudes. Those days it used to feel much warmer around -9 degrees. So one can imagine the circumstances under which you are working. Extremities are quite common at the Arctic,’’ Nandan told The Lede.

Scientists taking readings on ice
Scientists taking readings on ice Photo credit: Julienne Stroeve

Darkness Takes A Heavy Toll

Nandan added that even though he had developed an addiction over time to the darkness around him, working without the sun beating down up on you for days on end was a very difficult task.

Though darkness makes you more cautious because you always know that there is no sunlight and you need to watch your every step, it also has a very big effect on the human body says the scientist.

“You wake up in the morning it is dark. You have your breakfast it is still dark. You go out on the ice, again it is dark. You come back to the ship for lunch, it is still dark. When you go out to the ice back to work and then finally return for dinner it is still dark. Even when you wake up at night, it’s just darkness around you. So ultimately how much ever your body tries to condition itself, it does tire you down. There is a lot of difference between working under the light of a cabin and the natural light of the sun. It can be emotionally taxing too,’’ added Nandan.

Camping on ice
Camping on icePhoto credit: Ivo Beck

But Nandan goes on to say that the tight schedule and the need to be on your toes all the time since one is managing some of the most complicated remote sensing equipment kept his mind fresh all the time.

“You don’t get a chance to sit and think about where you are and whether this darkness is getting on to your nerves. For one, the schedule is so very tight and secondly your mind is always on the equipment and its proper functioning under the cold, windy and dark conditions. So one can imagine there is no scope to feel bored,’’ Nandan laughs it off.

Taking readings on ice
Taking readings on icePhoto credit: Daniela Krampe

The worst Nandan says was when wearing heavy gloves, he had to handle tiny nuts and bolts.

“Imagine such small nuts and bolts slipping off and falling into the ice. Searching for them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. When there is sun it’s much better because you can see it clearly. When it is dark it’s that much more difficult. From December 13 to February 26 I didn’t have sun at all,’’ added the scientist.

Scientists setting up equipment on ice
Scientists setting up equipment on icePhoto credit: Julienne Stroeve

“Polar bear attacks and unexpected storms were among the other things that hit us but we were well prepared,” added the scientist.

“In our leg we had an instance of a polar bear getting caught on camera fiddling with one of our instruments. We didn’t know it then. But when we found the instrument orientation wrong we checked the CCTV footage to find if anything had happened. That’s when we saw this big bear,’’ added Nandan.

Polar bear spotted on CCTV footage
Polar bear spotted on CCTV footage Photo credit: University of Bremen

Nandan says that amidst all these tough conditions the mood aboard Polarstern was mostly upbeat as most of them relished the challenge.

They even had a few parties on important dates like Christmas, New Years, St Patrick’s day and even his birthday.

Nandan also recollects how he cooked Indian food twice for the entire crew of the ship.

The control room of the ship
The control room of the ship Photo credit: Vishnu Nandan

COVID Was A Huge Worry

Amidst all the excitement and anticipation that Nandan and his fellow colleagues enjoyed while pushing the boundaries to get that extra bit of scientific data, the news about COVID-19 and the havoc it had unleashed was a big worrying factor on the ship.

“All these achievements and the wonderful time we were having on this huge expedition was all great till the news of COVID started trickling in. This was towards the end of our leg on the ship when we were getting ready to return. From then on there was a sense of uneasiness and stress on the ship because suddenly in the month of March everything was becoming so uncertain. Till then all was going as per a plan,’’ admits Nandan.

Nandan went on to say that the one of the biggest worries for the crew that he had been with was when they could get their replacements because they had been there for four months which is their stipulated time.

The Polarstern in all its beauty
The Polarstern in all its beauty Photo credit: Ivo Beck

“We were suddenly looking at the prospect of even over-shooting our stay by perhaps a couple of months or so and that would have been very stressful if we had to do it given the kind of circumstances that one works under,’’ added Nandan.

But things did go as planned and Nandan who got back on April 02 to his second home at Calgary is now under lockdown due to COVID-19. He says the world had completely changed when he was traveling back.

Nandan and his colleagues had to take special permission from the Norwegian government to dock back at Tromso Port before being flown out in a chartered flight to Bremen by German authorities. From Bremen he had to drive down to Hamburg to take a flight to Calgary via Frankfurt.

“I had a shock at Frankfurt airport which is one of the busiest airports in the world. It was like a graveyard without a single soul. At the entire Schengen visa clearance, I was the only person. I came to Toronto, I saw the same scene. Then I came to Calgary, there too it was the same scene. All this was new for me,’’ said Nandan.

Vishnu Nandan during his return from Polarstern
Vishnu Nandan during his return from Polarstern Photo credit: Marcus Huntermann

Sitting at his home Nandan now derives inspiration from the work he and his colleagues undertook aboard the Polarstern.

“There is one thing that the MOSAiC expedition taught me for sure. Whatever comes your way, whatever challenge life throws at you, I will somehow live through it. I may stress out completely but then I will handle it somehow. I think that self-belief comes after surviving some of the toughest climatic conditions. Perhaps you can get a little of that inspiration out to fight COVID too,’’ he added.

MOSAiC Sails On Despite COVID-19

Nandan might have stepped out of Polarstern but the ship continues its drifting over ice in spite of the rest of the world reeling under the virus attack, giving much hope that life needs to go on post COVID-19.

Scientists at the Polarstern who replaced Nandan and his colleagues will now be working under some uncertain schedules as nobody can say for sure when the world will fully open.

Meanwhile there was also a slice of history being made aboard the Polastern on Feb 23 when Nandan was also present. The ice carrying the ship came as close as 156 kilometres to the south east of the North Pole, the closest any icebreaker has ever got to before the ice carrying the ship drifted further south.

That Nandan says was no mean feat as RV Polarstern becomes the first ice breaker in 300 years to come so close to the North Pole.

“The Scot Polar Research Institute of Cambridge University has published the findings that the point Polarstern reached is the northern most point ever recorded by any ice-breaker. So it’s huge,’’ says Nandan.

The Polastern and the ship that brings the scientists on board
The Polastern and the ship that brings the scientists on boardPhoto credit: Steffen Graupner

Scientists like Nandan now hope that such attempts to push the limits would have only helped the expedition collate more pristine data, the outcome of which will only be known with time. Much of the success of MOSAiC will hinge on that.

“Whenever you go to field work you never expect 100% success. Many scientists say that you should be optimistic about it. I would say you should be more realistic about it. I think the MOSAiC is 70% successful in its efforts to get pristine data which in itself is fantastic given the number of issues we had with trouble shooting of equipment along with other logistical problems. Given all that I think the MOSAiC expedition has done a fantastic job,’’ Nandan told The Lede.

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