- Antarctica, the coldest and most isolated part of the world, is the only continent still untouched by the coronavirus.
- But as Antarctica’s harsh winter comes to a close, critical global efforts are underway to ensure that incoming colleagues for the summer rotation do not bring Covid-19 to the continent.
- “It’s almost scary how lucky we are. Out of all the people on the planet, we’re the ones who aren’t experiencing it,” said Karin Jansdotter, who’s lived in an Antarctica research station for nearly a year.
The coronavirus has ravaged the world now for nine months, with people across the globe enduring lockdowns of varying intensities, workplace and school shutdowns and restrictions on group gatherings.
Yet there’s still one continent that’s been untouched by the virus: Antarctica, the coldest and most isolated part of the world.
“It’s absolutely mental to think about,” said Karin Jansdotter, who has lived with five other people in an Antarctica research station for nearly a year and has missed the pandemic entirely.
“It’s almost scary how lucky we are. Out of all the people on the planet, we’re the ones who aren’t experiencing it,” she said.
Roughly 1,020 people have lived in darkness and isolation at various base stations throughout Antarctica during the harsh winter months. But as winter comes to a close, teams across Antarctica are preparing not only for summer research plans, but critical global efforts to ensure that incoming colleagues for the summer rotation do not bring Covid-19 to the continent.
Even in non-pandemic circumstances, few people are allowed in and out of Antarctica, which does not have the capacity to contain an illness spread given its remoteness and limited medical facilities.
Keeping Antarctica from getting its first case of coronavirus has been a top priority for countries that have bases on the continent.
Those who begin entering during the summer will undergo a two-week quarantine upon arrival and at gateway cities like Cape Town, South Africa and Christchurch, New Zealand, as well as testing measures.
“It’s been our highest priority to ensure Covid-19 doesn’t enter the continent,” said Alexandra Isern, the head of Antarctic sciences for the U.S. program with the National Science Foundation. “Medical facilities aren’t designed for what would be a rapid spread in the stations.”
Due to weather conditions, traveling in and out of the continent during the winter is extremely difficult. Even in an emergency situation, taking an aircraft out of the continent could require a couple weeks in order to open up an airfield.
“We’re vulnerable when it comes to getting us out of here,” said Jansdotter, who lives at the Norwegian Troll research base in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. She said that during the dark winter months, she worried about the safety of her parents, who live in Sweden.
“In the middle of winter there are moments where I’ve been worried and asked them where they’ve been, if they’ve met people, if they’ve been careful,” Jansdotter said. “I can’t get home if something happens.”
The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, comprised of 30 countries, has worked to reduce the chances of infection reaching the continent, including cutting team sizes and limiting the number of people at stations.
“There was strong international agreement that everyone would do all they could to prevent transmission,” Isern said. “No stations would be capable of handling an outbreak if it would happen.”
The U.S., for example, is sending about a third of its typical staff this summer, while other programs are not sending any scientists to the ice this year.
While some research projects have been interrupted, Isern said that investing in automatic research over the last decade to reduce the environmental footprint of people on the continent has helped teams collect weather data remotely.
Scientific research in Antarctica is critical as the climate changes. Temperatures on the Antarctic continent have surged by nearly 3 degrees Celsius over the past five decades and about 87% of the glaciers along its west coast have retreated due to climate change, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
“We see the changes,” said Ole Arve Misund, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. “In the summer there are higher temperatures than previous years, we see water running on the ice. We start to see a warmer climate affecting the environment in Antarctica.”
Even the South Pole is not immune. Located within the Antarctic plateau, the coldest region on Earth with temperatures ranging from -60 degrees Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit) in winter to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) during the summer, the South Pole is one of the fasting warming places in the world. Air temperatures there have surged at a rate more than three times as fast as the global average since the mid 1990’s.
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Antarctica was once only accessible to explorers and researchers, but the tourism industry has grown in recent years as Arctic cruises become more popular and accessible to people around the world.
Visitor tours to stations on the continent are canceled because of the pandemic, though it’s unclear which cruise ships, if any, will embark to the continent from various countries this summer.
In April, a cruise ship headed to Antarctica and South Georgia was evacuated after more than half of the passengers tested positive for Covid-19. Antarctica has been under pressure from growing human activity, the impact of climate change and commercial fishing, among other things.
Jansdotter, who is set to remain in Antarctica for another six months, said she’s learned to enjoy living in isolation, managing with few resources and appreciating the important people in her life.
“I don’t want to leave this behind. I love it here,” she said. “For people sitting at home through all of this, it must be extremely difficult. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m in this bubble watching everything from the outside.”