Antarctic science shrunk for COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

Antarctica New Zealand is limiting its activities in the world’s only COVID-19-free continent, in an effort to keep it that way.

This field season, the organisation will support only long-term science monitoring programmes in the vicinity of Scott Base, essential maintenance and priority engineering projects and critical Scott Base Redevelopment project tasks. Antarctica New Zealand says it came to the decision after close consultation with other National Antarctic Programmes in the Ross Sea region.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the decision. 

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington; Antarctic Science Platform Director, Antarctica New Zealand, comments:

“It’s a privilege to conduct research in Antarctica but with that comes responsibility to look after this special place. So the science community at large is fully supportive of Antarctica New Zealand’s efforts to keep Antarctica COVID-free.

“Saying that, it is a very significant sacrifice. Many of the field deployments take years to prepare and include many national and international partners. I have spent 13 summers in Antarctica leading science projects. I have never seen such an extensive reduction in Antarctic science activities.

“But most importantly, while the world’s attention has shifted to Covid-19, the climate crisis continuous to evolve. Antarctica’s response to climate change has the potential to impact hundreds of millions of people. We feel a deep sense urgency to provide much needed information to policy makers and communities around the world to prepare for climate change consequences and hopefully avoid the worst impacts by reducing our emissions.

“We are working with the international community to ensure we can push ahead with our research as much as possible using existing data, samples and as always new ideas. The Antarctic Science Platform funding model provides us with stability to weather this unexpected challenge and retain expertise and capability to continue this important work.”

No conflict of interest.
ote: Nancy is seconded to Antarctica NZ and appointed by an independent Steering Group Chair. She reports to the Steering Group not Antarctica NZ. The Steering Group has representatives from Antarctica NZ, MBIE and MFAT.

Associate Professor Rob McKay, Director, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This decision is not really a huge surprise to us. The shutdown affected the whole global supply chain and was already putting pressure on scientists to get their equipment into the country and ready to ship down to Antarctica. We would’ve made it happen if it did go ahead, although we would’ve had to shift the goalposts in terms of what science could be done. We had all been working on the assumption that there would be a severely scaled back field season, and like all parts of the economy, things have to be adjusted for this crisis.

“It’s certainly the right call in our minds. Antarctica’s an isolated environment – if you had a medical emergency with a high number of people sick, you just don’t have the capacity to deal with it. And with close-quarter, confined environments, it’s kind of like living on a cruise ship down there.

“As Antarctic scientists, we deal with working in a very hostile environment anyway, and we’re used to things going wrong. We try to prevent it as much as possible with good planning, but if something breaks in the middle of a science experiment in Antarctica or you have major weather delays, you often have to wait a year for another chance to get back into the field. So Antarctic scientists are resilient and highly adaptable by nature, and we’ll just have to go back next year bigger and better.”

No conflict of interest.

Fraser Morgan, Science Team Leader, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, comments:

“The announcement by Antarctica NZ to limit the access and activity to the continent is an expected one. Antarctica is the only continent without a case of COVID-19, but also has limited medical facilities to treat any outbreak. In addition, the layout of the bases and the close interaction required at field camps would probably result in a number of hotspots if the pandemic did make it down.

“While a move such as the one announced was expected, a large part of the science activity that Antarctica NZ usually supports has been affected. As an Antarctic Event Leader, you become very accustomed to the inevitable delays, changes, and cancellations that regularly occur. So in most cases there will be backup plans being put into place to minimise the impact on science programmes, but for some researchers the lack of a field season will be hard to replace.

“It is pleasing to see that some long-term science activities are being prioritised for support, or will be supported through science technicians who will be based at Scott Base throughout the summer season.”

Conflict of interest statement: As an Event Manager for a Antarctic field event, our logistics are provided through Antarctica NZ.

Dr Natalie Robinson, marine physicist, NIWA, comments:

“We will have to slide our programme back a year – at least I hope that’s what will happen and assuming will be allowed back in 12 months.

“My work is part of a seven-year programme so because it’s such a long one we have the ability to absorb a delay and still deliver within the timeframe. We are also trying to bring forward work scheduled for later in the programme, including deeper analysis of the data we already have from previous field seasons.

“Planning to work in Antarctica is always uncertain – the sea ice conditions dictate what I can do and they are quite variable so we always have a contingency plan.

“It’s a huge call but it’s also in line with what other international programmes have decided. You can’t do anything other than support the international efforts to keep the continent Covid-free.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Craig Stewart, marine physicist, NIWA, comments:

“We are postponing our plans to install between 8-12 radars on the Ross and McMurdo Ice Shelves. These radars would make continuous measurements of the ice shelf thickness over a wide area and the melting under the ice.

“In a way it is useful to have more time to work out exactly where we want them but as this is an observational study we can’t do anything until the radars are there.

“It’s a bit disappointing but completely understandable. We rely a lot on the US operation and I understand there would be limited search and rescue availability this summer. That’s an important factor- we would be camped hundreds of kilometres from Scott Base so would need to know there was good access to helicopter support if needed.

“The ice shelf will still be there next year!”

No conflict of interest.