Last year's final sunset at Davis Station. (Glenn Smith/Australian Antarctic Division)

Exclusive: How Scientists in Antarctica Are Living Untouched by The Global Pandemic

16 APRIL 2020

On the frigid landscape of Antarctica's Ingrid Christensen Coast sits Davis Station, where 24 people are hunkered down for a long and dark winter.

Although this happens every year, with the winter crew taking atmospheric observations, fixing seabird cameras, and looking after the station while the Sun slowly sets, this year things feel different.

 

"It's a worrying time for all of us here in Antarctica," Davis Station leader David Knoff told ScienceAlert in an email.

"We don't have much of a true idea of what life is like back home."

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, there are few places where the virus itself hasn't been able to reach.

Even hundreds of kilometres above Earth, COVID-19 has been keeping the International Space Station (ISS) crew on their toes. Just last week, Expedition 63 members travelled on the Soyuz rocket to the station, after weeks of the astronauts undergoing quarantine, and tight restrictions on the launch.

"I knew I was going to be in quarantine these two weeks, but what's really different is everybody else around us is in quarantine, too," American astronaut Chris Cassidy said in a prelaunch interview on NASA TV.

"It'll be a really, really skeletal crew in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which will be quite different."

Meanwhile at Davis Station, the last of the summer team left Antarctica in mid-February - when the worldwide effect of COVID-19 was just becoming apparent.

 

"No one had ever heard of COVID-19 when we left Australia back in October, but it started to have an impact on the Australian Antarctic Program as far back as early January," Knoff explains.

"The consequences of an outbreak on station would be devastating when you consider we only have one doctor and a well-equipped but small medical suite."

There are around 70 active Antarctic bases spread across an icy continent the size of the US and Mexico combined. In winter, these bases house approximately 1,000 people, and in summer this number swells to more than 4,000.

The Australian Antarctic Division currently has 89 winter crew members across its four stations. The team has been well prepared for a long, cold winter where the Sun eventually doesn't rise at all for a couple of weeks, but hunkering down during a global pandemic casts a new light on the experience.

"It's definitely made being away from home a little more challenging," says Knoff.

"Ordinarily everyone would be happily getting on with their lives back home, but now with COVID-19 people are losing jobs, being forced to stay home and not travel, worrying about loved ones getting sick or having to dramatically alter their lifestyles to stay safe."

 

The 24 Australians and New Zealanders on Davis Station are keeping positive. They have huge stocks of movies, Tim Tam biscuits, and a WiFi connection. Not to mention the elephant seals and penguins just outside their doorstep.

"The first thing I'd do when I return is see my family and friends, which right now would be one-on-one or via Skype so for now I might as well just stay here," says Knoff.

But, just like on the mainland, the havoc caused by COVID-19 on research likely hasn't yet been truly felt.

"The impact of COVID-19 on the scientific research down here will probably be felt most heavily next summer," Dan Dyer, senior winter scientist at Davis, told ScienceAlert.

"While nothing's final yet, it's likely that a number of the science projects which were planned for next summer will have to be postponed or scaled back as it may not be possible to send down some of the scientists and their equipment who were originally scheduled to be here next summer."

Each summer, all types of scientists make the trek to the frozen continent. They undertake population counts of penguins and seabirds, collect data from seismometers and GPS stations, run a neutrino-hunting experiment, and maintain atmospheric observatories important for weather modelling and climate change research.

 

"It's always sad to see years of hard work affected by events like this which are completely outside anyone's control," Dyer adds.

For the winter crew it's still early days. The team at Davis still have months until the originally scheduled date for travelling back to Australia. Thankfully, the station also has two years of food stocks in case anything was to go wrong, and a lot of free time on their hands.

"There is a well-stocked library, a station band, a cinema, cross country skis, a running track (for the brave) and a good gym complete with sauna and spa to warm up after a run," says Knoff.

But as protected as they are in their winter haven, the global presence of COVID-19 has caused some uncertainty even so far from the disease.

"At this stage we are due to return to Australia sometime during next summer. There are of course some unknowns in the months ahead regarding international travel, shipping and aviation which may have an impact," Knoff adds.

"Hopefully, see you all next summer…"