Antarctica: the final coronavirus-free frontier. But will it stay that way?

Steve Forrest, a scientist, counts the number of chinstrap penguins in a colony standing on Anvers Island, Antarctica, February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino     SEARCH "ANTARCTICA PENGUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RC20YE9M26UP

Image: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Antarctica remains the only coronavirus-free continent, but it is not immune to the effects of the pandemic.
  • Cramped living conditions at research stations could make infection particularly hazardous.
  • The region was home to increasing tourist activity before the outbreak. This has come to a halt, as have a number of research projects and intra-station activities.

In February, as the coronavirus situation in China worsened and other parts of the world saw their first outbreaks, residents at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station were prepping for a run-of-the-mill end to summer – settling in for six months without the sun – and enjoying the traditional screening of the Antarctica-based horror film “The Thing.”

Have you read?

Three months later, Antarctica remains the only continent free of COVID-19. That comes despite some close calls, including a cruise ship that had been en route before 60% of the people on board tested positive in early April. As a result, the region is no longer just a desolate frontier of 5,000 people (even during warmer months), and where one might encounter crevasses wide enough to swallow a car or 200-mile-per-hour winds; it is also an island of safety as the coronavirus-related global death toll is poised to top 300,000. And, with the recent change in season further restricting Antarctica’s connections to the outside world, it might stay that way.

The consequences of infection could have been particularly severe. The people dispersed in facilities across an area nearly half the size of Africa tend to live in cramped quarters, and even if respirators are available, medical staff are limited. Dozens of research stations host the continent’s shifting population, operated by a diverse group of countries. The US’s McMurdo Station, the largest, can accommodate as many as 1,200 people during the summer. In addition to scientific research, it houses participants in an Artists and Writers Program that’s generated an Oscar-nominated Werner Herzog documentary and a “forensic geology mystery novel.”

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Antarctica hasn’t been completely spared from the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic-related cancellation of scientific operations and intra-station activities, like basketball tournaments, has created an existence described as “isolated within isolation.” And, the region’s appeal for tourists now seems less certain. The total number of visitors to the continent increased by 53% between the 2015-2016 and 2018-2019 seasons, to 56,168. Those tourists specifically visiting by sea with excursions ashore rose by 61%, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

Image: World Economic Forum

To be sure, the increased tourism has added to environmental concerns about the region. And while global tourism may have mostly ground to a halt for now, the cruise industry continues to promote trips to Antarctica.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The pandemic has pared down scientific research planned for Antarctica – according to this report, the Australian Antarctic Division expected to send 500 expeditioners in the coming summer season but will now send only about 150. (The Conversation)
  • The most advanced Earth-observing instrument NASA has ever sent into space recently made a disturbing observation: the net loss of ice from Antarctica, along with Greenland’s shrinking ice sheet, caused nearly a third of all total sea level rise in the oceans between 2003 and 2019, according to this study. (Science Daily)
  • Antarctica’s Lake Mercer is one of the most remote on Earth, and is covered with a 1,000-metre-thick ice sheet. A team of scientists recently offered a peek into its depths via video feed. (Scientific American)
  • Life in Antarctica can be so isolated that one recent study found a group of inhabitants forming a distinct shared accent during their brief stay. (JSTOR Daily)
  • Some good news: recent studies of plastic recovered from Antarctic waters suggest that measures to restrict the amount of debris entering the Southern Ocean have been successful, at least in part. (Science Daily)
  • Long before it was covered in ice Antarctica was home to a temperate lowland rainforest, according to this recent scientific analysis. (Nature)
  • Antarctica has been the site of great geopolitical manoeuvring, not least due to China’s increasing interests in the region, according to this analysis. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Travel & Tourism and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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