On May 6, a flight from Australia touched down on the frozen runway at Phoenix Airfield, a solitary airstrip near Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. The collection of aging dorms, admin buildings, and warehouses on Ross Island that make up McMurdo serves as the logistical hub of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). On the horizon, islands trapped in ice rose out of the snowy tundra. In the dim half-light, workers bundled in heavy-duty winter gear set about loading and unloading cargo and refueling the plane, their faces snugly fitted with N95 masks. Radios crackled as the ground and flight crews communicated back and forth.
After everything was squared away, the plane left on its seven-hour return flight to Australia. The growl of the jet engines was slowly replaced by the low, eerie whirl of katabatic winds sweeping over the ice. It was the last flight and outside human contact that anyone on the ice would have until August.
As of mid-July, Antarctica is the only continent with no cases of the novel coronavirus. The White Continent’s extreme geographic isolation, regulated contact with the outside world, and access to modern amenities like the internet make it seem like the perfect place to weather a global pandemic. (There’s even a joke about it: Why does no one in Antarctica have the coronavirus? Because they’re so ice-o-lated.) But the 41 different research bases across the continent are also extremely vulnerable to the consequences of COVID-19 elsewhere, like the disruption of vital shipments and transport that connects the continent to the rest of the world.
The first rumblings of COVID-19 didn’t inspire much fear for people “on the ice.” “When the outbreak started, we would all joke that the Antarctic people would repopulate the world,” says Dr. Julie Parsonnet, an expert in infectious diseases and epidemiology who spent September to February working as a health care provider at McMurdo. (Parsonnet is now at Stanford University in California, where she is studying the virus.)
Antarctica is currently in the depths of winter, which lasts from late February to October. Starting in late April, the continent enters a long, dark night, when the sun sets below the horizon, not to be seen again until August. No ships can come in, and planes would only attempt a flight for an emergency medical evacuation. The roughly 1,020 “winter-overs” currently stationed on the ice find themselves in the unusual position of being extremely safe while watching an unprecedented event completely alter the world they left just months earlier.
“It’s a little bit unreal,” says Karin Jansdotter, a chef with the Norwegian Polar Institute stationed at the ultra-remote Troll Station in East Antarctica, “to be in this bubble that we’re in here and all this other stuff is happening outside in the big world.”
Since Antartica is a continent that’s used solely in the pursuit of science, with no native human population, the countries that have territorial claims or operate bases there—which include the United States, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand—have a unique advantage in controlling the spread of the virus by being able to restrict outside access and having a limited population to monitor. While nations around the world have responded to COVID-19 with varying degrees of urgency, the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, which represents the Antarctic programs of different countries, collectively jumped into action in January. “Protecting our people remains a top USAP priority during this global crisis,” says Kelly Falkner, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, which oversees USAP.
So far, everything is working as planned. As the primary carriers, humans present the biggest threat, making step number one keeping infected persons off the continent by either not deploying them or requiring testing and quarantine measures. USAP halted new southbound personnel starting in March. Troll Station received its last inbound flight in February.
But the winter-overs still need supplies, which have to be stocked up ahead of winter. McMurdo’s annual resupply happens in late January or early February. This year, that was early enough in the pandemic that the ships delivering the roughly 7 million pounds of food and fuel were able to drop off their goods without incident. If the pandemic rages on for much longer, the 2021 season could look completely different.
Keeping COVID-19 off Antarctica is one thing; what to do if it gets there is another matter. A pandemic running wild on a small base in the middle of nowhere with no hope of rescue is the stuff of horror films.
In normal times, all potential staff must meet physical qualification requirements and pass stringent medical exams to make sure they are physically and psychologically equipped to handle months of isolation in such an extreme environment. In the wake of COVID-19, programs like USAP have upped their physical qualification requirements to meet CDC and world health guidelines. They’ve also adopted measures including the use of masks and social distancing from fly-in crews, “testing as it becomes available,” and “very stringent isolation measures,” according to Falkner.
Larger stations like McMurdo have medical resources similar to that of a small hospital or urgent care—there are a few ventilators at McMurdo, and Troll Station has respiratory equipment as well—but smaller bases may only have first-aid capabilities. More serious, life-threatening diagnoses need to be handled off the ice.
“It’s very expensive to medevac people,” Parsonnet says. “So they have a lot of focus on keeping people from getting really sick in the first place.”
Many aspects of overwintering life in Antarctica also set the perfect stage for a viral outbreak: freezing temperatures, dry conditions, suppressed immune systems, and living and working in close quarters. Because these conditions allow even normal colds to flourish and spread quickly, stations already have a strong focus on good hygiene, including frequent hand-washing, covering mouths when sneezing or coughing, and keeping spaces clean and sanitized.
“We did have influenza down there this year, and I have to say we had very few cases, because we’re pretty good at quarantining people and getting them what they need and getting them off work,” Parsonnet says of McMurdo. “It’s a very tight community, and if people are sick, they stay in their rooms, their roommates move out, and somebody from their workforce will deliver food to their room.”
Stations also benefit from reduced winter populations. Antarctic stations are at their busiest during summer, with between several hundred to more than 1,000 people at most sites. In winter, the numbers dwindle. At McMurdo this year, there are around 160 people. At Troll, there are six. During the winter, Antarctic stations are like small towns: everyone knows everybody’s business. This makes contact tracing a breeze. “It might be easier to contain than in other places just because we know where people worked, we know where they live, we can isolate people better,” Parsonnet says.
The mental health of winter-overs is another story. The lack of sun, freezing temperatures, bad weather, close living quarters, and spending the majority of your time indoors with the same group of people for months on end can result in so-called winter-over syndrome, which includes depression, insomnia, irritability, and even aggression. (In 2018, after a winter on ice, a Russian engineer stabbed a man in the chest multiple times for allegedly giving away the endings of books.)
Stuck indoors, isolated with a small group of people, with few outlets for entertainment and fun: sounds pretty familiar, huh? But compared to the rest of the world, which was suddenly forced into quarantine measures with little advance notice, Antarctic personnel have months to mentally steel themselves for these challenges.
Many winter-overs cope in much the same ways as the rest of us have: staying digitally connected to loved ones, leaning on their on-base companions for support, keeping a routine, exercising, spending time outdoors, and finding hobbies, especially creative ones. Parsonnet took part in a Stitch ’n Bitch knitting club. Jansdotter is experimenting with fermentation and making a lot of bread.
“There’s a lot of creativity that comes from that sort of isolation or deprivation from things that you might normally just go out and buy or do,” Parsonnet says. “They’re very used to having to make do with less. You don’t need very much to be happy.”
Antarctica starts reopening at the end of August with winter flights to McMurdo. Known as winfly, it marks the time when the sun returns to the continent and nonemergency planes can arrive, bringing fresh supplies and personnel. After months of no contact with the outside world, winfly presents the next opportunity for COVID-19 to slip onto the continent.
“Opening each station from its winter-over period will have to be managed very carefully to avoid exposing existing crews to the virus and to ensure new crews do not carry the virus to the stations,” a statement from the National Science Foundation announced on April 27. Another statement released in mid-June added that “the highest priority for the upcoming season is to ensure the safe and continuous operation of all three USAP stations and to resupply them for the winter period that begins in February of 2021…Keeping the stations operational is essential, or future research would be impacted for several years.”
As a place well-versed in using facts and science, few want to speculate exactly how COVID-19 could affect Antarctic programs, especially if second waves start happening. Looking beyond reopening, the upcoming 2020–2021 summer season will likely face staffing shortages; increased screening, testing, and physical qualification standards; possible delays or disruptions to shipping; and reduced movements or contact between bases.
But for now, it appears the continent has dodged the bullet. Its 1,020 temporary residents wake up safe each day; look outside to stark but breathtaking landscapes of volcanic soil, snow, and endless ice; and go about their work.