9 June, 2020

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

 CAMBRIDGE: British Antarctic Survey (BAS) reveals more detail about its Antarctic season operational plan for the 2020-21 season.

COVID-19 continues to present BAS with a number of exceptional operational challenges to deliver the UK’s polar science programme, and keep research station infrastructure and scientific instruments functioning.  Currently, we have our complement of winter staff at Rothera, Bird Island and King Edward Point research stations.  Halley and Signy research stations closed for the Antarctic winter in March and May.  At Halley many instruments are still running using our autonomous power supply.  All of these stations are currently clear of COVID-19.

BAS Logistics planning experts have spent the last month consulting with UK and international polar research colleagues, medical experts and other national Antarctic programme operators about priorities, options and protocols for next season.

The safety of all of our staff, research collaborators, and external contractors remains our top priority, as well as keeping Antarctica Covid-19-free.

Planning next season

Restrictions on many aspects of logistics due to the COVID-19 situation, such as restricted travel through the normal gateways, supply chain disruption, and impacts on pre-deployment training for Antarctic staff, mean that we are working on the detail of two scenarios for next season.

Scenario One is to run a minimal season, which, on the assumption of continued disruption to international air travel, would involve transport of staff (including the new wintering team) from the UK to Antarctica and back on the RRS James Clark Ross.  These teams would undertake station maintenance, replacement of staff before the next winter season, and continuation of science monitoring activities where possible. BAS will also station an aircraft in the Falklands to enable medical evacuations if required.

We are also planning for Scenario Two: as above but possibly with extra activities as and when COVID restrictions improve. This might include maintaining deep field equipment and depots required by international collaborative programmes, construction of foundations for the new Discovery building at Rothera Research Station, servicing of field scientific instruments, and essential maintenance at Halley Research Station.  This will depend on availability of flights to the Falklands to enable more staff to travel south.

Neither of these scenarios will allow the normal numbers of research and support staff to be deployed south, and will mean that BAS cannot support ‘deep-field’ research campaigns during the 2020-21 season.  However, critical support work to enable these campaigns to resume in the following season will take place.  Flexibility is key to planning and working in Antarctica and is especially true for the coming season as global conditions evolve due to the pandemic.

Director of BAS, Professor Dame Jane Francis says,

“Antarctica is the only continent free of the COVID -19 virus, but our operations and science there have been severely affected by restrictions in the rest of the world.  Planning an Antarctic summer season in this uncertain world is certainly a challenge, both for us and our international polar colleagues. At BAS we are doing our best to maintain, as much as is possible, the critically important operations and science programmes.

Research collaborators are encouraged to make contact with BAS Director of Science, Professor David Vaughan.


Announcements from other national Antarctic Programmes

Australian Antarctic Programme

Antarctica New Zealand

US National Science Foundation