Impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian Antarctic Program

6 April 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has meant that for one of the few times in our rich Antarctic history, Australia will be forced to limit scientific research at its stations next summer and send only the most essential expeditioners to maintain stations and services.

Careful management and screening to date has made our stations on the Antarctic continent and sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island COVID-19 free.

However, the ongoing pandemic has led to substantial changes in operations including:

  • decreased operational capacity
  • disrupted supply chains
  • delays in major projects including the RSV Nuyina
  • the inability to assemble and train teams for next season

Instead of sending 500 expeditioners to the region next summer season (October 2020-March 2021) the Australian Antarctic Division will send only around 150.

The focus will be on essential tasks including the resupply of stations, the change-over of teams, and automated research and data collection.

“From the outset, the Australian Antarctic Division has been meticulous in recognising COVID-19 challenges and in protecting the welfare of expeditioners in one of the world’s harshest environments,” Minister Ley said.

“An outbreak of COVID-19 in such a closed environment would be horrific, and while it is disappointing to put projects on hold the operational changes are the right thing to do.

“It is important to know that even in this reduced capacity, the stations will continue to play a vital role in weather and climate monitoring.”

Australian Antarctic Division Director, Kim Ellis, said that the extensive forward planning required for Antarctic expeditions meant that COVID-19 restrictions were already preventing normal preparations.

“Those impacts along with the absolute priority of protecting people within the most isolated and remote environment on earth mean that we needed to take this decision,” he said.

“Any projects requiring the deployment of expeditioners or dedicated logistics outside of essential activities need to be deferred.
 
“Our planning for the 2020-21 summer season continues to centre on the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through the Australian Antarctic Program as it is deployed south.

“The safety of our expeditioners living and working at our three Antarctic stations and on Macquarie Island has to be our priority.”