Photograph by Ronan Donovan, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

A person sits near a colony of gentoo penguins, Pygoscelis papua, next to an old research shed.

Photograph by Ronan Donovan, Nat Geo Image Collection

Antarctica is the last continent without COVID-19. Scientists want to keep it that way.

Studying Antarctica is critical to combating climate change, but most scientists can’t travel to the continent this upcoming season.

The busy summer season in Antarctica begins in October and runs through February, when thousands of scientists from dozens of countries usually pack into the continent’s remote research stations. Forty permanent bases dot the desolate landscape, a number that nearly doubles when summer-only facilities resume operations. This year, however, getting to this icy scientific realm comes with a serious concern: Antarctica is the only continent without a single reported case of COVID-19.

Medical care at the research stations is limited, and dorm-like living makes it easy for disease to spread even in the best of years. During a pandemic, reducing the number of scientists on the continent will mitigate the risk of an outbreak, but it also disrupts urgent research.

Scientists working on Antarctica scan the stars with telescopes, search for fundamental particles, and study some of the most remarkable animals in the world. The remote continent is also crucial to understanding changes across our entire planet. Climate scientists study ancient air bubbles trapped in the ice to understand Earth’s history, and they monitor the melting ice sheet and warming Southern Ocean to forecast the planet’s possible future.

But most of these scientists will have to do this work away from the continent this season, relying on remote sensors and the large volumes of data and samples collected in previous years.

“It is gut-wrenching,” says Nancy Bertler, director of the Antarctic Science Platform in New Zealand. “We only have a few years left to make some very significant changes to avoid the worst of climate change consequences, and we can’t afford to wait a year.”

Keeping COVID-19 off the ice

The Antarctic environment is so extreme that Dirk Welsford, chief scientist at the Australian Antarctic Program, compares it to outer space, and with good reason. The International Space Station orbits 220 miles above Earth, while the most remote base on Antarctica—France and Italy’s Concordia research facility—is about 350 miles from its nearest neighbor and over 600 miles from the closest source of supplies on the coast.

Most Antarctic bases are located on the vast coastline rather than inland like Concordia, but even these are difficult to reach. Scientists travel via planes and ships that are delayed by extreme weather so often, the United States Antarctic Program has a section of its participant guide titled “Be Patient.”

This year, patience alone won’t be enough. “For all nations working in Antarctica, it is the main goal to keep the virus off the ice,” says Christine Wesche, logistics coordinator at Germany’s Antarctic program. But exactly how to accomplish that goal remains in flux, as programs navigate many moving parts.

The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) and its 30 members are coordinating a major reduction in personnel. All of the programs will cut their teams by varying degrees—Australia and Germany by 50 percent and New Zealand by 66 percent, for example. The United States hasn’t shared their adjusted team size, but recent press releases say the number of people they can safely deploy is “limited.”

By reducing team sizes, the programs can better ensure a strict quarantine and testing regime, since tests can be costly and it takes time to get results. Limiting the number of workers at the stations also helps ensure that, if the virus does make it through say, due to a faulty test, fewer people are exposed.

A handful of waypoint cities in the Southern Hemisphere are crucial to reaching Antarctica. The German team usually flies through Cape Town, South Africa, a country that has reported more than half a million coronavirus cases. Uncertainty around international flights through the hotspot means the German team may have to travel on their supply vessel Polarstern.

The United States will still fly through Christchurch, New Zealand, where they regularly complete pre-departure training and are outfitted with cold weather gear before continuing to McMurdo and Scott Base with the New Zealand team. The two countries are working on a quarantine and testing strategy to keep COVID-19 out of Christchurch when the U.S. passes through.

Once the teams arrive in Antarctica, life will look much as it did pre-pandemic. Programs may test new arrivals or require them to socially distance, but they won’t maintain these practices through months of communal living. Everyone on the continent will be presumed virus-free unless they exhibit symptoms, in which case they will be isolated, tested, and if positive, medevacked off the continent. A COVID outbreak would be even more dangerous in the winter season, when harsh polar storms render medevac flights nearly impossible to perform safely.

Keeping the stations running

Antarctic programs expect some degree of disruption every year from storms, sea ice, and mechanical issues in remote places, but they’ve never canceled projects on this scale before. Most international collaborations, new experiments, and fieldwork such as tagging penguins and collecting samples have been paused. However, program managers say they can’t cancel their seasons entirely.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on Earth. Polar explorer Sir Douglas Mawson called Antarctica an “accursed country,” while Robert Falcon Scott, the second man to reach the South Pole, famously wrote, "Great God! This is an awful place.” One hundred years after their expeditions, very little has changed.

Station buildings, therefore, need human intervention to keep water and sewage plants running and to prevent hazards such as fuel leaks and fires. Maintenance is scheduled during the milder weather of the austral summer, which is the only time outposts can be resupplied for the winter. Leaving the bases empty—or worse, being forced to evacuate them—would be more complicated than a regular season.

With a few exceptions for tentative projects, including Australia’s marine science voyage to study krill in the waters of East Antarctica, the national Antarctic programs are limiting their work to essential operational activities and keeping their long-term data collections running.

At New Zealand’s Scott Base, the oldest collections date back to when the facility was established in 1957. These datasets from weather stations, ecological surveys, and moorings in the water help scientists track the variability of the Antarctic climate. Science can be a slow game of incremental changes, and these measurements from more than 60 years ago allow researchers to see longer-term trends in the data.

“Some of these records have never been disrupted,” Bertler says, “so we don’t want to be the generation that does.”

Next season

This year will be a trial run to test the Antarctic programs’ preventative measures. If they can keep their teams isolated, healthy, and safe this season, they can scale up to larger expeditions with more scientists next year—even if COVID-19 remains a threat.

“I think we’ll hopefully be in a different place by the time next season rolls around,” says Sarah Williamson, CEO of Antarctica New Zealand. “We’ll build and aim for a full season with as much science undertaking as we can, and then be prepared to change our plans just like we have this year.”

As critical as Antarctic climate research is to the health of the planet, the health of the scientists and staff comes first, Wesche adds. “My main goal is to send the people in healthy and get them back healthy.”