With more than five million coronavirus cases across the world, many of us would assume that there’s indeed no safe place for us where the disease is absent. But, there’s an isolated place that interestingly has been safe from the virus since the pandemic started: Antarctica.
Stijn Thoolen, a 29-year-old researcher with the European Space Agency who has been at the Concordia Station in Antarctica since November, feels a little inconsiderate during this time. While they are kept safe from the virus and can enjoy normalcy, millions of people are suffering from the impacts of this public health crisis.
In an interview, Thoolen said that being in Antarctica already felt "so otherworldly" because of the increasing darkness and cold. "To see what is happening in the rest of the world only makes me feel further detached. It really is another world," he said. To cope, he tries to stay updated with the news through public computers and keeps in contact with family and friends. Mainly, the researcher hopes something positive can come out of the situation.
"Being taken out of the comfort of our daily routine may give us an opportunity to see the precious things that we usually like to take for granted. It shows us how vulnerable we can really be," he said.
Antarctica is the only continent without any sign of COVID-19. Despite being coronavirus-free, the continent has still imposed stringent measures to keep the virus out, including quarantines and cutting off winter staff. Even social gatherings at some polar bases have been stopped. Currently, 5,000 people, including scientists and researchers, reside in Antarctica’s 80 or so bases. Keri Nelson, an administrative coordinator at Anvers Island's Palmer Station, the most northerly US station in Antarctica, is one of them.
"I really don't think there's a person here right now who isn't grateful to be here and to be safe. Some people are ready to head back home. To help people they love, and to be of use in other ways during this time in history. But all of us are very appreciative to be living in a place where this disease (and all of the health and lifestyle implications thereof) are absent,” Nelson said.
The absence of coronavirus in Antarctica is mainly due to its isolation from the rest of the world. Previous studies show that the continent is not only entirely surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which heaves with giant waves whipped up by intense winds, but it is also home to the eastward-flowing Antarctic circumpolar current (ACC), the world’s strongest ocean current. The Antarctic polar front, one of the several circumpolar oceanic fronts in the Southern Ocean, is considered as a barrier blocking the movement of marine plants and animals into and out of the continent.
According to Reuters, an international news organization, Antarctica tourism ground to a halt weeks ago as outbreaks aboard cruise ships hit headlines and governments put travel restrictions in place. For instance, Argentina, which has around 170 scientific and military personnel remaining on Antarctica, has limited visitors to its bases except for the delivery of vital supplies. Dr. Alexandra Isern, Head of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Sciences Section, added that measures like frequent hand-washing were already commonplace on Antarctica bases.
“We have always maintained robust public hygiene and health protocols to combat sickness in close quarters,” Isern said.
Many experts said that it’s good that Antarctica is still coronavirus-free because the consequences of infection could have been particularly severe. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, the people dispersed in facilities tend to live in cramped quarters. Medical facilities are also limited in the continent, thus, the likelihood of spreading it to others would be high.
Impact on Scientists’ Research
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of human life, and science is no exception. Many scientists are expecting that their work will have to wait until we are safe from the crisis. For some, this will have serious implications. The National Science Foundation, for instance, runs the largest Antarctic program at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The program has welcomed up to 5,000 scientists and staff members every summer.
An infected researcher in Germany was detected before his team traveled to the ship. However, this led to the cancellation of an entire airborne experimental survey. Geographer Michael Bravo of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University in England said that no one knows how long the preventive measures should stay in place.
"A precautionary approach means rethinking travel and logistics, even at the cost of reduced research taking place. 'How long' questions are very difficult to answer at the moment anywhere in the world, and the same goes for insulating the polar regions from viruses,” Bravo said.
Many scientists are worried about their research, especially the backlog of work on analysis and publications from earlier experimental data. According to NBC News, an online site that covers breaking news, videos, and the latest top stories in world news, business, politics, health, and pop culture, the shutdown due to the pandemic is more serious for scientists who rely on access to wildlife.
“Nature won't wait for studies to start up again, and nature can't be repeated. There's an unrecoverable gap that is being formed right now, and it is truly global and may end up being quite long,” ecologist Ben Halpern, the director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said.
Current measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 mean that scientists and researchers in Antarctica will have to stay for many months longer than they expected in the cold and inhospitable climate. Pradeep Tomar, a medical doctor on a research mission to India's Bharati base in Antarctica, said there’s constant anxiety on the site. It is fueled by the lack of information about coronavirus as well as constant worrying about their families back home.
"Friends have been telling me that they are surviving in a situation like ours, isolated and glued at home. It is beyond my imagination to realize the entire world going out with their masks on,” Tomar said.