For many, 2020 is probably the year “that never was.” For the pandemic had everything in its grip and the attempt to keep the virus and its mutations at bay brought many areas of life to a standstill. The research season in Antarctica was also affected. National research programs were scaled down to the minimum, station personnel had to go through tests and long quarantines to get to research stations. The upcoming season is now upon us and program coordinators are planning a return to normality. But there are enormous challenges ahead in many areas that cannot be solved so easily.
At their annual meeting, COMNAP (Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes) members announced that they intend to increase their activities in Antarctica again in the coming season and reach “close to pre-pandemic levels”. According to a press release, special attention will be paid to the increased support of scientific personnel. In other words, more personnel should be brought back to the stations to ensure the continuation of research programmes, long-term observations and the continuous flow of important data. Failures and data gaps, which sometimes occurred last season, are to be avoided this season. In doing so, COMNAP members aim to maintain strict health and safety protocols and renewed its guidelines to this end.
COMNAP’s guidelines to ensure the virus doesn’t find its way to Antarctica this season are just one part of a complex operation. National Antarctic programs have their own protocols in addition to the COMNAP guidelines and must also follow the protocols and measures in the so-called “gateway” countries, such as New Zealand. From these countries, most flights and also supply runs are launched with icebreakers to save time, money and energy. And now these countries represent a “bottleneck” that poses major challenges for the logistics of national research programmes. And COVID is only part of the problem.
New Zealand has closed its borders since the pandemic began. Entry is only possible with special permits. And even then, all entrants must be quarantined at an MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) facility. These centers, set up by the state, are hotels where entrants must spend 14 days in quarantine, regardless of whether one has certified vaccinations or a negative PCR test or a history of COVID. In addition, the spots must be paid by the foreign occupants themselves. So far, so good. But the problem is that there are not enough places available for the Antarctic programs, as research by a New Zealand newspaper has shown. The places are fully booked and opening more places is within the government’s decision-making powers, MIQ officer Rose King tells the newspaper. According to our own research, free places that can be booked via a voucher system are currently not available until the end of November. This is a huge problem as some countries had planned to have their staff flown into McMurdo from Christchurch. For example, Italy and South Korea had a total of 230 people scheduled for October and November. The US, which operates McMurdo, also has several hundred people scheduled to start the Antarctic season from New Zealand.
Some countries want to avoid this logistical bottleneck and have already announced that they look into switching to other gateways. But for East Antarctica, only Hobart on Tasmania and Cape Town in South Africa remain. And these two countries are also struggling with problems: Due to COVID, entry into Australia is currently only possible with special permits and long quarantine periods, which are also expensive. And in South Africa, in addition to COVID, the political situation has deteriorated in recent weeks and rioting, looting and violence are currently the order of the day. Whether the situation will ease again in the coming weeks is not yet foreseeable. But this poses additional problems for the planning security of the programmes. That leaves the two South American gateways of Ushuaia and Punta Arenas. Both serve as launch points for stations along the Antarctic Peninsula and in the western Weddell Sea. Here, too, the COVID situation in Chile and Argentina plays an essential role. On the one hand both countries have launched their vaccination campaigns and have already been able to achieve success. However, with the emergence of the Delta variants, relaxations have been reversed and Argentina in particular has closed itself off from air traffic again. Ushuaia and Punta Arenas are currently trying to obtain exemptions for international flights, also in view of the coming tourist season, the start of which is also still written in the stars.
As a last option towards Antarctica, there are the Falkland Islands or expensive and difficult long-haul flights directly to Antarctica. The Falklands had already played an important role as a starting point for the German and British Antarctic programmes last year, and with the help of supply ships and costly record-breaking flights from Europe, material and people could be brought to the stations. Norway, on the other hand, had its station personnel fly directly to Antarctica to exchange the summer team with the wintering team. However, such flights are likely to be the exception again this year. What is certain is that the planners of the national Antarctic programmes will face major challenges in the coming weeks in getting their personnel safely to the white continent.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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