Antarctica remains the only continent untouched by the coronavirus pandemic, but its enviable status has necessitated a great sacrifice: Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the British Antarctic Survey announced the near-total suspension of the upcoming summer research season in an effort to insulate facilities and crews from the virus.
The back-to-back announcements from the US and UK follow a similar decision by New Zealand, and it is expected that the dozens of nations working in the area will adopt similar measures in a serious hit to ongoing Antarctic research, Science reports. The three American bases, which generally teem with up to 1,200 researchers between October and March, will instead be maintained by a skeleton crew.
Stephanie Short, the head of Antarctic logistics for the NSF, told NBC News in April that while the effect on research will likely be substantial, “the exact extent of that impact is yet to be determined.”
Scientists are sharing their alarm over what stands to be lost. “There’s an unrecoverable gap that is being formed right now, and it is truly global,” says Ben Halpern, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who also spoke with NBC News.
Researchers often spend years preparing for an Antarctic field season, where critical data—collected at great cost—feeds into climate science, ecology, psychology, and space exploration. While scientific measurements taken from stations such as McMurdo will continue, logistically intensive field projects will see the greatest disruptions, including the Antarctic’s largest joint field venture, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, Science notes.
The Thwaites Glacier lies in a largely inaccessible corner of the Antarctic, but the funders of the project, which include the NSF and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), poured money and personnel into a five-year monitoring program because the ice sheet is melting fast and contributing to ongoing sea level rise. This coming season would have been the second spent on the ice, documenting the glacier with seismographs, ice cores, and even seals fitted with tags to monitor ambient conditions.
“Working in Antarctica always brings surprises and disappointments, and as ever the safety of everyone is paramount,” says glaciologist David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey, in a statement announcing the delay. A handful of researchers will visit the site to protect their scattered equipment, and Vaughan adds they remain “committed to delivering our science goals just as soon as we can get back.”