Antarctica, the only continent on Earth without a natural human settlement has a lot to be explored and discovered. National, as well as Global organizations, travel to Antarctica in the Summers of the southern hemisphere that starts from October and lasts till the end of February. Dozens of nations usually pack into the remote research stations of the continent and Antarctica hosts about 40 permanent bases with nearly double summer-only facilities. However, this year, travelling to the icy desolate landscape for research is causing concern as Antarctica is the only continent that has no COVID-19 infections.
Considering the location, medical facilities are extremely limited on Antarctica and dorm-like living makes the spread of the disease easier and faster. Reducing the number of scientists on Antarctica might lessen the risk of an outbreak but it will disrupt the urgent research.
Research is done at Antarctica- Scientists scan stars, search for fundamental particles and study the most remarkable animals on Earth. Antarctica is also crucial to understand the climate changes happening across the planet and forecast the possible future.
But most of the researchers might have to do the work this year, using remote sensors, based on the samples and data collected last year. Scientists have apprehended the need for significant changes within the next few years to avoid the worst climate consequences and waiting an entire year to determine the changes might have “gut-wrenching” results.
The Antarctic environment is so extreme and far from its neighbours that it’s comparable to the outer space. Most Antarctic bases are located on the coastline and even then, they’re difficult to reach and travel, by planes and ships, is often delayed by extreme weather. For all the nations working on Antarctica this year, the main goal is to keep the virus off the ice. All programs are navigated by moving parts and nations have decided to cut their teams by large percents. This will ensure strict quarantine, better testing regime and if at all, the virus spreads due to faulty tests, fewer people are infected.
With several restrictions on international flights, countries are looking for other means to transfer the teams to Antarctica. Nations are working in a coordinated manner to develop quarantine and testing strategies both at departure and arrival at their respective bases. On arrival, the life in Antarctica might look very similar to the pre-pandemic times and everyone will be presumed virus-free until they show symptoms in which case they’ll be isolated and tested and if found positive, they’ll be sent back from the continent. The coronavirus outbreak might be more severe in the harsh polar winters due to storms restricting flights and travel.
More than often, the research at Antarctica is disrupted by storms, sea ice and mechanical issues but the cancellation of projects on this scale has never been performed before. Almost all international collaborations, collection of samples and tagging penguins have been restricted but managers state that programs can’t be cancelled completely. Thus this year has to be a trial of safety norms in Antarctica and if successful, larger expeditions will be possible next year even if the threat continues.