How the Pandemic Changed Antarctica

Researchers returning home from Antarctica ‘left one world and have come back to another.’ But while their lives were in stasis, the continent they live on continued to struggle under the weight of diplomatic pressures and environmental concerns.

Jun 7 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

Matt Williams arrived in Antarctica on January 15, 2020, to lead Australia’s Mawson research station on the east side of the continent. Two months later, he watched as Australia entered its first coronavirus lockdown. But as events were canceled and businesses closed, Williams’s life on the other side of the world didn’t really change. He continued working, befriended a penguin he named Smudge, hung out at the station’s outdoor bar, celebrated Pride, and even took a plunge into Antarctic waters.

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His is the story of many Antarctic residents over the past year and a half. When most of the world began shutting down in March 2020, only Antarctica was (at that point) spared from the coronavirus pandemic. Amid the snow-covered mountains, vast plateaus, and icy beaches, scientists and research station workers found themselves shielded from the deadly virus, only witnessing the vigorous hand-washing, sudden isolation, and symptoms of COVID-19 family and friends endured via stories told from thousands of miles away.

At stations on the continent, residents hunkered down for a winter together—without social distance. Moving to Antarctica these days doesn’t just entail packing up your parka and mentally preparing for the subzero temperatures. After intensive quarantines and coronavirus testing, it offers what many people around the world might call a luxury: Freedom from pandemic-related restrictions.

While Antarctic residents have sheltered away from the pandemic in an isolation of their own making, they have managed more safe socialization with their fellow residents than most people around the world experienced this year. Still, the very continent they live on has continued to struggle under the weight of diplomatic pressures and environmental concerns. Tensions over Antarctic fishing rights, funding, construction work, and more have intensified as international meetings have been canceled or moved online—making the continent’s already fragile, and complex, governance system all the more delicate. “The pandemic in general reinforced, but accelerated, preexisting trends,” said Alan Hemmings, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

The incongruous struggles Antarctica has faced over the past year are reflected in the return of Antarctic researchers to a pandemic-stricken home. “Adaptation back this time has been very different, and a few weeks into my return, my head is still in learning and reaction mode,” said Williams, who returned to Tasmania on April 13 of this year. “We left one world and have come back to another.”

Williams with emperor penguins

Antoinette Traub, a supply technician with the United States’ National Science Foundation, arrived on the continent in December 2020, and will stay at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station until at least November 2021. A few months after she had arrived, Antarctica’s winter set in; temperatures had begun to drop to below minus 50 Celsius, and the continent was shrouded in winter darkness. Few flights go in or out from March to October each year. “The last flight [from Amundsen] was in February,” she said, “and we will not see any new faces—nor receive fresh fruits like apples and oranges—until November.”

Lack of sunlight aside, Traub and her colleagues keep busy. Residents meet in the gym daily for a morning stretch, the station’s chefs keep everyone well fed (fresh doughnuts or bagels are prepared daily, and a week’s dinner menu in April read “Monday: Chicken Piccata; Tuesday: Salmon and Taco Bowls; Wednesday: Gyros; Thursday: Pho and Egg Foo Young; Friday: Swedish Meatballs; and Saturday: BBQ Ribs”), and movie marathons abound. “We currently have three ongoing movie marathons on station,” said Traub. “All the Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and Marvel Cinematic Universe films in their respective order. We’re currently watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zodiac, and Thor.” One day a week, Traub volunteers at the station’s hydroponic greenhouse.

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Traub also has a TikTok account that boasts over a million followers. “My parents kept asking for updates, [so] I thought the best way to show them was over social media,” she said. “I had no idea it would blow up the way it has.” The TikToks show Traub’s daily life in Antarctica, one that is wildly distant to most of her viewers; she takes walks amid glaciers, does fun science experiments, and works. When she was at the U.S.’s McMurdo Station, Traub hung out with penguins. Her day-to-day assignments vary; sometimes she organizes the station’s waste to send back to the U.S. (no trash can stay on the continent), and other days she audits station inventory and brings supplies to different departments.

Traub’s colleague Katharine Smith, another supply technician, has been in Antarctica since September. This is Smith’s third time living on the continent, and while she’s enjoying the relative freedom compared with the months of lockdown she experienced prior, she said it’s also been disconcerting to watch the pandemic impact Antarctica’s around 100 stations. “With precautions taken to prevent COVID from getting to the continent, the population at all stations remained extremely low and construction was put on hold,” said Smith. “This year I believe McMurdo only had about 400 people at most [out of a capacity of over a thousand], and [Amundsen-Scott Station] only reached 61 rather than topping out at 150.” This makes the vital scientific research conducted on these stations all the more difficult. The smaller number of staff has impacted the science too, said Martin Wolf, an astro-particle physicist from Germany who is currently working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station studying neutrino particles. Instead, programs and activities “have been mainly rescheduled to the coming years after the pandemic.”

Antoinette Traub and Katharine Smith

Even so, Smith has made the most of her time. “I launched weather balloons, drove a Delta truck, viewed the transit of Mercury through a telescope, flew to the South Pole in the cockpit of an LC-130, saw penguins and newborn seals,” Smith said. “It’s easy to start taking things for granted here since you are so immersed in it 24/7.” But, at the same time, she added, “I have been in this protected COVID-free bubble for almost eight months now. Life here feels normal to me.”

“To be honest, I might need to cut my social calendar back a little to get more solo recharge time,” said Erin Heard, the U.S. winter manager at McMurdo Station who has been in Antarctica, or on the way to the continent, for most of the pandemic.

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Residents on other stations have felt similarly. “A lot of people said to us that we really did pick the best year to be away, in the most isolated place on the planet. And in a way that is true,” said Williams, the Australian station leader. “We did not, until resupply and our first human contact 16 months later, have to socially distance, limit use of gyms, avoid social occasions or limit shared meals and travel. Whatever that actually looks like on Antarctic stations is vastly different from anything you can imagine at home—but we still lived a life we expected and planned for, to some degree. We also did not live in real fear of our own personal health—we knew we were isolated enough to not get COVID.”

The outdoor ice bar

Mike Brian, a station leader at Britain’s Rothera Research Station in Antarctica, was there when the pandemic began, and went back to the UK in May 2020. He returned to Antarctica a few months later, and only recently went home again; he has colleagues that just left Antarctica after being away for the majority of the pandemic thus far. “They weren’t that far from missing it completely,” said Brian. “By the time they got back in, the vaccine had been developed and was available.”

Rothera residents had similar daily routines to their U.S. counterparts; after the workday, according to Brian, they watched movies, worked out, and took coastal walks. They also celebrated: “We had a ceilidh [kaylee]... a traditional Scottish dance, and it requires contact dancing.” In general, Brian said, “we were able to sit next to each other and enjoy each other’s company in a very relaxed fashion. It felt like that was a huge privilege, compared to the rest of the world.”

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Despite their relative freedom, it’s been hard for Antarctic residents to spend this year away from their communities and home countries. Traub’s grandfather died from the virus in April 2020. “His was one of the first recorded thousand deaths in California, so it hit my family very hard,” she said. Traub graduated from college a few months later, and had to move back in with her parents when she lost a part-time job at a local brewery before leaving for Antarctica. Her brother has been on the front lines of the pandemic as a first responder, and her parents tested positive in December.

“With the pandemic, political atmosphere, protests, and natural disasters, at times it felt like the rest of the world was falling apart,” said Heard. “I felt far more distant than normal, almost like I was on another planet.”

While the pandemic didn’t interfere with most of Williams’ team’s experience on the continent, Australian station residents also watched their families suffer from afar. “We had to be relatively helpless onlookers as our loved ones struggled to cope with their new reality and the unknowns related to the pandemic,” said Williams. “We could offer moral support, but in reality we had no context, no sense of the realities, and didn’t have to live the day-to-day in a pandemic world. This weighed heavily on us and on our loved ones.”

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“You really have to lean on your ‘ice family’ down here for support because there is nothing you can do about it—you’re stuck,” Smith said.

“It’s very, very difficult to be lonely in Antarctica. And, yes we’re isolated from the rest of the world, but we’re part of a community that’s very tight, and everybody knows everybody else,” added Brian.

Stations all over the continent also have strict procedures for visitors or new employees. For U.S. stations, Traub received three COVID tests, and spent a month in quarantine on her way to the continent, staying in a New Zealand government-managed facility along the way. Upon arrival at McMurdo Station, everyone had a daily temperature and wellness check for the first week. Then, freedom. “In my experience, the United States Antarctic Program and its participants have taken COVID precautions way more seriously than people and places back home,” said Smith. “Even after all the isolation we go through to get here, a flight arriving on station during the summer would trigger a ‘condition yellow,’ meaning assigned meal groups, mask wearing, limited capacities, canceled events, and social distancing. Everyone here abides by the rules and doesn’t argue about having to wear a mask.” These stringent policies have worked: None of the American research stations in Antarctica have had any COVID-19 cases. “Sometimes it feels like I’m getting the better end of the deal by being here instead of back in the States,” Traub added.

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The Australian Antarctic Program has required similar checkpoints and quarantines. They also canceled intracontinental flights between stations, and mapped out their emergency responses should a crisis arise. “It was a mammoth, but essential, effort,” said Williams.

Mawson station under the Aurora Australis

Though human activity has slowed in Antarctica over the last year, the continent itself has continued to change. Last year, the continent broke its warmest temperature ever recorded, at 65 degrees. The ice has continued to melt: This April, scientists warned that the Thwaites Glacier, the widest glacier on the planet, which is currently about the size of Great Britain, is at risk of collapse. New research has found that the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would impact the entire world, raising sea levels by three feet.

A warming planet was not the only external pressure on Antarctica this past year; diplomatic posturing and resource grabs have continued to threaten the continent as well. In terms of the pandemic’s physical impact, the coronavirus did eventually make it to Antarctica: Chile’s General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research station reported dozens of cases in December 2020, marking the virus’s spread to all continents. Australia is currently moving forward with plans to build an airport runway in East Antarctica that scientists say will increase human impact on the continent by 40 percent. As the pandemic was silently spreading in January 2020, a New Zealand Navy aircraft spotted a Russian ship fishing in a protected area in Antarctica; the controversy has lasted over a year as Russia has denied the claim.

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This isn’t the first time Russia’s resource extraction in Antarctica has drawn consternation, however, and this illegal fishing occurred at a time of intense scrutiny for the industry: Fishing in Antarctic waters is one of the sharpest points of contention on the continent. At the intersection of diplomacy and conservation, some countries have accused China and Russia of exploiting continental resources for economic gain, or even taking advantage of the lack of oversight from this past year. China is currently building the world’s largest krill-fishing boat and has recently blocked a proposal to restrict fishing in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier region, even though krill fishing is detrimental to the continent’s ecosystem. Russia hopes to double its revenue from seafood exports in part by producing and selling canned krill from Antarctica. Some academics have warned that fishing may be a preview of the future of rights to mining, which is currently prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty.

Antarctica is unique in that it is governed by a treaty system, which is run collectively by 29 countries known as “consultative parties.” Almost every decision made on the continent and in the surrounding waters requires a consensus. So, each year, these countries get together at various weeklong conferences to discuss, debate, negotiate, and hammer out settlements regarding issues like fishing, governance, environmental protections, ongoing and new projects, and more. The pandemic threw a wrench in this tradition, and has since left various proposals and projects in limbo, as research stations have halted visits to one another and international meetings have been postponed or held virtually.

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In many ways, virtual diplomacy is discordant with the continent’s traditional governing style. Face-to-face contact can be really important when coming to an agreement on divisive topics, said Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London: “It’s easier to be obstructive in online environments... because you don’t have to look the person in the eye down the corridor, or go to a reception and be confronted about why you’re being so awkward.” At in-person meetings, Dodds said, “a lot of diplomacy unsurprisingly is about the corridor talk,” from smoke breaks to random encounters.

Different participants in continental stewardship—the scientists and Antarctic workers, academics, and international leaders—have also become increasingly separate from one another over the past year. “What you have seen in the Antarctic over the last decade is an increasing kind of siloization of relationships,” said Hemmings. “The pandemic shutdown resonates throughout the system, not just the formal points of engagement at diplomatic meetings, but all the processes beforehand, [like] the capacity to pick up domestic thinking from your science community.”

Kevin Hughes, a vice chair of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), is helping plan CEP’s annual meeting this June, the first one in over a year. Originally scheduled to be in Paris, the meeting was recently moved online. There will be a lot to cover, as Hughes said that many of the environmental proposals and studies have been delayed “because the logistical difficulties were insurmountable.”

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In October, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which oversees fishing, boating, and marine protection in the Southern Ocean, held their annual conference virtually. Though it was a feat that the meeting even occurred, some attendees were dissatisfied with the limited agenda and the lack of movement on certain issues such as climate change and marine protected areas. The online meeting, said Birgit Njåstad, the head chair of the CEP, was “not a discussion-friendly environment.” This had real-life impacts. Multiple proposed environmentally protected areas in Antarctica were ready to be reviewed and approved last year by CCAMLR, a part of the Antarctic treaty system, but partially because of the pandemic, protection has been stalled.

Still, the CEP planners recognize that in-person meetings wouldn’t solve everything. And at their upcoming meeting, in addition to the logistical difficulties, like broadband connection, translation issues, and competing time zones, Hughes is prepared to be disappointed with the amount that they get done. “I think we just appreciate that we’re going to have to take a hit on this, and the real hope is that we can meet in Germany, in 2022, in an in-person meeting to really just crack on with a lot of the work.”

The actual Antarctic research has been strained as well. In light of the pandemic, countries like the UK and the United States scaled back their Antarctic programs and research. “The scale of the Antarctic activities are not going to be quite as much as they would normally be,” added Hughes. While the U.S. and UK lead research on the Thwaites Glacier, which maps climate change’s impact on both the melting ice and the planet, Hughes said that the collaboration during the pandemic “has basically come to a halt.”

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“What we really did was sort of a maintenance season,” said Brian, who is on the UK side of the ice sheet work. “We were able to do the minimum that we needed to do there, but there’s no doubt about it that scientific program[s] will have taken a hit.”

And the Antarctic community itself is struggling: Daniela Liggett, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, sent a survey to more than 400 Antarctic researchers late last year asking about the consequences of the pandemic on their work, family, and mental health. Overall, like others around the world, researchers expressed that their productivity decreased and their anxiety increased. But in her forthcoming paper for the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Liggett found that early-career researchers, and specifically women, have been the most adversely affected, with some already looking to leave the field altogether. “Early-career researchers just didn’t seem to see prospects and research in the future and then getting a job and completing their degree,” said Liggett. Soon enough, “we might be experiencing a bottleneck of people retiring, but not enough young researchers filling in, following the footsteps, because of COVID, and because of funding cuts.”

Now, as parts of the world have slowly begun to vaccinate citizens and lift restrictions, station workers who are still on the continent are feeling that separation. “It’s a piece of history I am missing out on: The slow progress of the world opening up,” said Traub. “Seeing restaurants reopen, catching up with friends and family I haven’t seen in person in months... But at the same time, I know it will be there for me when I come home at the end of 2021. And though it’s a pivotal moment in history, it’s still a stressful one—a feeling I’m skipping out on altogether.” One of the first things on Traub’s list when she gets home: getting vaccinated. “It’s been heartwarming to see the numbers of American adults taking the vaccine,” she said. “I’m hopeful that when I come home things will be somewhat normal.”

“Normal” for Antarctica—meaning pre-pandemic activity—is still a ways away. In the summer season before the pandemic, more than 74,000 tourists traveled to Antarctica. During the 2020 and 2021 seasons, only a handful have visited. It’s still unclear whether this “year-off” for the pandemic will really have any positive environmental effect on the continent, Hughes said, as the land is slow to recover. To researchers and scholars that study it, diplomats that govern it, and the land itself, a post-pandemic Antarctica looks hazy. “The question really is, given that online diplomacy is likely to continue again for this year,” asked Dodds, “what are the Antarctic Treaty parties thinking about in terms of innovation, to try and improve upon the experience of last year?”

Williams, who returned to a low case count in Australia, is experiencing the pandemic, and residuals of the pandemic, for the first time. “At the tail end of our expeditions, when things were finally ready for us to come home, we had to go from zero to one hundred in a blink of an eye. We basically had to come back to a world completely changed, and on edge. Social distancing, masks, processes while shopping, limitations on movement, government tracking of our movement, social expectations on contact and intimacy.”

Some of Brian’s colleagues were even reluctant to leave the continent. “You can’t hide from the rest of the world, but people weren’t relishing going back to the COVID world,” added Brian. “It was striking to come back.”

“I can genuinely say I felt almost like an alien arriving on a new planet,” said Williams.

Follow Leah Feiger and Mara Wilson on Twitter.

Tagged:

climate change, antarctica, COVID-19, The Reemergence Issue

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