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Antarctic Research Has Been Hard-Hit by COVID-19

Science about the southern continent has been severely disrupted.

Key points

  • Travel restrictions and concerns surrounding infection have made it challenging for scientists to conduct Antarctic research.
  • Many people involved in Antarctic research reported negative effects due to the pandemic, but half reported positive impacts, research shows.
  • Some forms of assistance that researchers see as helpful include financial support and caregiving in order to help people continue working.
  • In the longer term, respondents worried that Antarctica might slip down the research agenda for many countries, according to the research.

Over three million dead and approaching two percent of the world’s population infected. Livelihoods devastated and families split for terminal diagnoses and deaths. Plus, those suffering from long COVID alongside all the health concerns not taken care of as health systems and personnel became overwhelmed.

This is COVID-19, perhaps the worst pandemic in a century.

Ilan Kelman
Memorial in Tromsø, Norway to Roald Amundsen, leader of the first team to reach the South Pole.
Source: Ilan Kelman

It has shattered art and science as well. Many in these fields wonder what the future holds for them. Even if they have jobs, they have experienced major career setbacks and have contributed far less to society than they would wish to.

One area of science that has been affected is about Antarctica, the only continent without permanent human habitation, yet reflecting what is happening to the world from rapid human-caused environmental changes. A project endorsed and supported by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) has been exploring how the pandemic and dealing with it have affected the science of Antarctica, as well as what supporting measures would be needed. Everyone connected with this research is considered: scientists, research support staff, technicians, aircraft and ship crews, and people working on the bases including electricians and cooks.

Restrictions to travel, and the desire to avoid being exposed to the virus and to avoid infecting others, severely impeded on-site research in and around Antarctica during the 2020-2021 southern hemisphere’s summer. Many other scientists have been unable to travel to labs or archives for their Antarctic research.

Even people who can research from home have been dealing with family responsibilities, increased workloads for administration and teaching, and all the stresses affecting everyone in terms of social isolation, themselves or people around them getting sick, and job security.

The Impacts of COVID, According to Researchers

Nonetheless, those who have jobs researching Antarctica or supporting the science are fortunate, even if their work has been curtailed and faces an uncertain future. SCAR is interested in the concerns of and possible support for people affected. The project received additional support from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), the New Zealand TransAntarctic Association (NZ-TAA), and the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Led by Dr. Daniela Liggett and Dr. Andrea Herbert at the University of Canterbury, I was part of the team from around the world producing and disseminating a multilingual online questionnaire. It was available during the latter part of 2020, providing 406 responses that were useable. Most were in English, with two in Chinese, five in Russian, and 24 in Spanish.

Nearly half of the respondents said that they are early-career researchers, defined as up to five years following their doctorate while accounting for career breaks. Half of all respondents have a full-time, permanent contract.

Reports of impacts were mixed. One-third of respondents indicated a major, negative impact from the pandemic, especially regarding their mental health. Almost one-quarter indicated no effect on their mental health.

Meanwhile, approximately half of respondents mentioned positive impacts from the world’s situation, especially advantages in working from home and the possibilities to attend events, to make connections, and to undertake training online.

As always, clear patterns of inequities emerge. The groups describing the most detriments were women, often due to caring responsibilities, and early-career researchers.

What Support Is Needed

The respondents provided many suggestions for how to consider moving forward, indicating the forms of assistance which would be most useful for them. Additional financial support topped the wish-list, including for science and through fellowships, but also for caregiving in order to permit people to continue doing their jobs.

Many recommendations focused on science. Requests were common for improved online access to data and catalogues of samples.

Respondents recognized the necessity and opportunity of working almost exclusively online. They suggested free participation in workshops, symposia, conferences, meetings, mentorship sessions, and venues for interacting internationally. Mental health assistance featured prominently.

Further career support could be provided by acknowledging the difficulties many have experienced, and especially the inequities of these experiences, in future evaluations. This could cover reviews of projects and applications for jobs.

More strategically and long-term, respondents described worries that Antarctica might slip down the research agenda of many countries. Understandably, attention has been diverted toward ending the pandemic, determining its widespread impacts, and hopefully preventing new catastrophes. Part of the latter is accepting how much Antarctica informs us about the ongoing, rapid, global changes that are increasingly part of our day-to-day lives.

Those working with Antarctica had originally expressed hope that the continent would remain COVID-19-free. Unfortunately, that did not work out.

Days before Christmas in 2020, Chile reported 36 cases at its General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research station, along with three cases from a ship servicing the base. In early 2021, the Spanish ship Hespérides was on its way to Antarctica when COVID-19 broke out, so its trip was cancelled. At least one crew member subsequently died.

Within the dismal and grim reality for too many, some have been able to find positives. Two optimistic survey respondents wrote, “I started writing papers that had been on the back-burner,” and “I focused on other goals like publications and achievable analytical goals.” This does not make it easier for those who cannot.

Can we learn from the mistakes which created the pandemic in order to do better next time? This form of success will help science, support humanity, and most importantly, save lives and livelihoods.

References

Barbosa, A., A. Varsani, V. Morandini, W. Grimaldi, R.E.T. Vanstreels, J.I. Diaz, T. Boulinier, M. Dewar, D. González-Acuña, R. Gray, C.R. McMahon, G. Miller, M. Power, A. Gamble, and M. Wille. 2021. "Risk assessment of SARS-CoV-2 in Antarctic wildlife". Science of The Total Environment, vol. 755, no. 2, article 143352.

Frame, B. and A.D. Hemmings. 2020. "Coronavirus at the end of the world: Antarctica matters". Social Sciences & Humanities Open, vol. 2, no. 1, article 100054.

Hughes, K.A. and P. Convey. 2021. "Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Antarctica". Antarctic Science, vol. 32, no. 6, pp. pp. 426-439.

Lorenzo, C., D. Liggett, B. Frame, A. Herbert, I. Kelman, J. Pickett, and Y. Yermakova. 2020. "Antarctica and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Taking a Social Sciences and Humanities Perspective". ECO magazine, Polar 2020, pp. 116-119.

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