Out & About: Dartmouth student set to return to Arctic for project

  • Ian Raphael. Photo courtesy Dartmouth College

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2020 9:29:51 PM
Modified: 5/15/2020 12:22:06 PM

HANOVER — When Ian Raphael returned to the United States after about six months in the Arctic, he encountered a very different environment from the one he had left.

Raphael, a graduate student at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, was one of about 60 scientists and 40 crew members that are part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, better known as MOSAiC. The purpose of the year-long project is to collect data on how the Arctic is changing, how the ice is melting and how it is impacting polar marine life. Raphael departed in September and returned at the end of March.

“I was out there for six months, so I had a lot of time to imagine what it would be like to come home and how wonderful it would be to see my friends and my family,” Raphael said during a Zoom interview from Bremerhaven, Germany, where is getting ready to return to the Arctic.

He and the scientists of MOSAiC on the German research vessel Polarstern were studying “how fast the ice is growing and the snow was impacting that growth” and “how storms and other large atmospheric events are changing the ice.”

The research project is divided into parts, known as legs. Raphael took part in the first two legs, which took place during the Arctic’s winter.

“We had intense storms, really intense winter storms,” he said.

Upon his return, Raphael had imagined visiting his favorite stores and eating his favorite foods. When he returned to the U.S. after navigating the international travel system during the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent two weeks in quarantine with his sister in New York City.

“It was very difficult and very unexpected,” he said.

He also grappled with the decision to visit his family in Washington state.

“Nobody could validate that decision. It was totally up to me and my family to decide what is right,” Raphael said. “On the one hand you want to be safe. On the other hand we haven’t seen each other for so many months.”

Raphael and his family decided that he should make the trip out to the Pacific Northwest.

On board the ship, Raphael was aware of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We got a daily news digest, but were weren’t able to go online,” he said. “I think that the information flow onboard was super limited.”

When Raphael returned, it was a shock.

“On the ship it didn’t affect us at all. When we got back to civilization it became very apparent,” he said. “I felt paranoid. I felt like I had to be ultra cautious. It was so different from being in this tiny ice community where you know everybody and there virtually are no unknowns.”

Initially, there were concerns that the expedition would have to end due to the pandemic.

“Leadership wasn’t sure if we could continue with the expedition,” Raphael said. “There are a lot of precautions that the institution and participants have had to take before we could continue.”

While there are medical personnel who are part of MOSAiC, “if everyone on the ship gets (coronavirus) that obviously becomes a very large issue,” Raphael said, and the project would likely have to be halted. “Nobody wants to see that happen, so we’re being very cautious to make sure the virus doesn’t make its way on the boat.”

Raphael returned to Bremerhaven on April 29 to get ready to join the fourth leg of the journey, which is set to begin on Monday. The planned return date is Aug. 25.

“Now that the sun is back, that totally changes the game. We’ve got the snow melting and eventually we’ve got the ice melting,” he said. “It’s changing very fast. We’re seeing thinner ice, and we’re seeing warmer water from the Atlantic. We’ll be playing around in the slush and the water a lot.”

After arriving in Bremerhaven, Raphael was immediately tested for the virus and went into self-isolation at a hotel. While other members of MOSAiC were also self-isolating at the hotel, they were not allowed to interact with each other. Participants will be tested for COVID-19 three times. Now that they’ve passed the initial self-isolation period, their quarantine restrictions have lessened a bit.

“We do get to interact with each other and it’s wonderful,” Raphael said, adding that he was particularly excited to be able to go onto the hotel’s roof and feel the sunshine. “It felt like another dimension, something new opened up. It feels like a small community, much like ice camp does. We’re essentially confined, but we still have our own community within the boundaries.”

Raphael is eager to get back to the Arctic and continue working with other researchers.

“I’m really, really excited to go back … to see how things have changed when I have been gone and to do new science,” he said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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