Update: British Antarctic Survey response to COVID-19 and planning for next season

CAMBRIDGE: British Antarctic Survey (BAS) continues to plan its operational support to the UK and international polar research community during global challenges posed by COVID-19.

Halley and Signy Research Stations closed for the Antarctic winter in April. The last of the BAS aircraft has left Antarctica. Winter operation has begun at Rothera, Bird Island and King Edward Point Research Stations. These stations are currently clear of COVID-19.

Around 100 research, support and construction staff are onboard the RRS James Clark Ross and a charter ship. They expect to arrive in the UK towards the end of May 2020, weather permitting.

Planning for the 2020/21 Antarctic season

COVID-19 presents BAS with a number of exceptional operational challenges for next season. We are working through a number of possible scenarios ranging from a very basic operation that will keep station infrastructure and scientific instruments, through to a typical Antarctic season. Each of these scenarios comes with challenges including:

  • Ensuring that robust pre-deployment health screening protocols are in place for the new summer teams to avoid exposing over-wintering staff to the virus when the summer teams arrive at stations. Protocols required to avoid introducing COVID-19 to our stations include pre-screening, testing and stringent isolation measures for incoming staff
  • Travel restrictions around the world are likely to persist, making commercial airline travel and transit of our own aircraft to Antarctica through ‘gateway’ destinations difficult
  • If we are restricted to ship-only access to Antarctica for research and support teams then the number of people who can be deployed is limited
  • Interdependencies with other National Antarctic Programmes with whom we have collaborative projects may prove difficult
  • Recruitment will be disrupted in the short to medium term and may take time to resolve
  • Potential disruption to supply chains and procurement for essential supplies may prohibit critical summer activities in our stations.

Current plans

We are taking an agile approach to our planning. A key challenge is the timing of decision-making while the UK and global response to the pandemic evolves. A strategy for planning the next Antarctic season is in place:

Priority 1. Ensure the safety of all over-wintering staff and continuous operation in our Antarctic stations. Ensure that we have effective logistics and operational systems to resupply them for the 2020/2021 Antarctic summer season and the 2021 winter. Assess our options to maintain Antarctic support systems that will enable our world-leading science programme to continue well beyond the timeline of COVID-19 impacts.

Priority 2. In addition to Priority 1 actions, we will review and minimize where possible negative impact on science, construction, and future operations, with particular emphasis on avoiding irreversible damage to science or operational infrastructure.

Priority 3. In addition to the above, we will assess the feasibility of operational support for some scientific research programmes that were planned for the austral summer 2020/21. We will engage with research teams within BAS, UK universities and international institutions to discuss options and mitigation of impacts of potential deferrals.

Over the next four weeks, we will work with colleagues and collaborators to review the details of each priority to draft a feasible plan for 2020/21.

Director of BAS, Professor Dame Jane Francis said

“Every Antarctic research operator is facing these same challenges. The safety of our staff and keeping COVID-19 out of Antarctica are our top priorities. Working in Antarctica is always challenging and we are used to being flexible and adaptable. That said, the whole world faces the most extraordinary challenge. Every day our knowledge of this virus changes and we don’t know how things will progress. The Antarctic research community is resilient and I know that everyone will do their best to maintain, as much as is possible, our critically important operations and science programmes.”

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

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