Antarctic Operations Resume in Smaller Numbers Under COVID Threat

Antarctic researchers. Image: NASA Goddard/Flickr

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

This week 40 researchers will emerge from quarantine to board a ship bound for Antarctica, hoping to resume critical research operations on the continent which have been halted for months due to COVID-19. Antarctica is the only place on Earth that is still untouched by the pandemic and, for the 1,000 researchers from 30 countries who weathered the cold, dark winter there, it’s imperative that it stay that way. 

Why This Matters: The research being done in Antarctica is critical for studying climate change and biodiversity loss. The British Antarctic Survey’s five primary research sites include Bird Island in South Georgia, one of the richest wildlife sites in the world, and Halley Research Station, where researchers discovered a massive hole in the ozone layer in 1985. 

Researchers recently found that 60% of Antarctic ice shelves are at risk of fracture, threatening to cause rapidly rising sea levels in the near future. “We desperately need to carry out full research programs in Antarctica,” said Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). “It has so much to tell us.”

 

Taking Precautions: The Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross will bring technicians, divers, field guides, and other service personnel to Antarctica so that they can run and maintain research instruments and collect samples going forward. Program planners are doing everything they can to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t arrive with them.

BAS’s head of polar operations, John Eager, described the preparation process, “we have picked only very fit and healthy staff who have no COVID risk factors. Then we have quarantined them for 14 days. And on top of that, we have made sure the ship will not enter any port en route so there is no further risk of picking up the virus. It will sail directly to our research stations around Antarctica.” 

An International Effort: Many other countries have also made big changes to their Antarctic operations.

  •  The U.S. is sending only one-third of its usual summer research staff and is investing heavily in technology that will allow researchers to collect and transmit data remotely
  • New Zealand will send only 100 researchers instead of its usual 350 this year and is prioritizing maintaining its long-term data collection projects, some of which began in the 1950s

Not only would an outbreak in Antarctica disrupt research, but it would be extremely difficult to treat or control. The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), made up of 30 countries that conduct research on the continent, released a document stating, “A highly infectious novel virus with significant mortality and morbidity in the extreme and austere environment of Antarctica with limited sophistication of medical care and public health responses is High Risk with potential catastrophic consequences.” 

To prevent the virus from spreading to Antarctica, COMNAP halted tourist cruises to the continent and banned social events between research stations. 

Different Worlds: Researchers on the continent are now preparing to welcome their new colleagues to the unique isolation provided by the job. Working at 40 research stations across Antarctica, researchers from many countries live and work in small teams and brave the coldest temperatures and fastest wind speeds in the world. 

Despite these natural restrictions, researchers have enjoyed pre-COVID freedoms that many in their home countries can only remember. Field guide Rob Taylor, based at the U.K.’s Rothera Research Station, arrived in October 2019. “In general,” he said, “the freedoms afforded to us are more extensive than those in the U.K. at the height of lockdown. We can ski, socialize normally, run, use the gym, all within reason.” 

The James Clark Ross will also be bringing researchers back to the U.K., all of whom left for their expeditions before the pandemic. They will be returning to an unrecognizable new normal. Researchers at the McMurdo Research station sewed their own masks and even underwent a drill to simulate the return home. Many of them are also concerned that the jobs they left won’t be waiting for them when they come home. “Most of us left jobs to come to Antarctica – with the assumption that when we got back things would be fairly similar to when we left. It’s clear that this will not be the case,” said Taylor. Another returning researcher, McMurdo station manager Erin Heard, sympathizes, “it will be super weird, to be honest, to be coming from what feels like another planet.”

 

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