What it’s like to live in Antarctica during the pandemic

What it's like to live in Antarctica during the pandemic

(CNN) – While the rest of the world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, a continent has managed to remain completely free from infection.

Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, is now considered “the safest place in the world”, without any confirmed case.

The region was closely linked to Covid-19 when epidemics struck the last cruise ships of the season, but the virus did not reach its frozen coast. And, as it currently goes down in winter, when it is completely cut, it should be so for the moment.

Although there is no official indigenous population here – unless you count the many penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses – around 5,000 people, mainly scientists and researchers, currently reside in its approximately 80 bases.

Keri Nelson, administrative coordinator at Antwerp Island’s Palmer station, the most northerly American station in Antarctica, is one of them.

Safest place on Earth?

Antarctica is the only continent in the world that is still free of coronavirus.

Keri Nelson

“I really don’t think there is anyone here right now who is not grateful to be here and to be safe,” she told CNN Travel by email.

“Some people are ready to go home. To help the people they love, and to be useful in other ways during this time in history.

“But we are all very grateful to live in a place where this disease (and all of its health and lifestyle implications) are absent.”

“I read everything I could about the dynamics of this situation,” said Nelson, who has worked on the continent during the winter and summer seasons since 2007.

“I feel it is my duty as a human to witness what is going on in the world.”

Robert Taylor is stationed at Rothera Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) base on the island of Adelaide off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The 29-year-old from Scotland works as a field guide, providing assistance to scientific colleagues conducting research and ensuring that all field work and travel is carried out safely.

Although he had also been watching the crisis closely from the start, being so far away meant that he had not realized its severity for a while.

“I remember the news from China in early January,” said Taylor, who arrived in Antarctica about six months ago.

“Then the first cases in the UK, and to think that it was something minor and distant, that would not affect me.

“It appeared to me gradually, as it spread and gained prominence in the media.”

Tourism impact

It is estimated that 78,500 tourists were expected in Antarctica during the 2019-2020 season.

It is estimated that 78,500 tourists were expected in Antarctica during the 2019-2020 season.

Alexey Kudenko / Sputnik / AP

While Taylor, who moved between the Halley VI research station and Rothera during his stay on the southernmost continent, is concerned about the situation and worried about his family, especially his grandmother, he says he it’s hard to feel connected to what’s going on sometimes.

“It’s like being on the moon and looking down,” he adds. “We can see what’s going on, but it’s far away.”

Tourism has flourished in Antarctica in recent years, with Arctic cruises becoming more and more popular.

About 78,500 tourists were expected during the 2019-2020 season – the Antarctic season runs from November to the end of March.

Nelson, who often coordinates visits to Palmer station, says the research station hosted thousands of people last year, but the numbers have come down this season due to the crisis.

“Several ships stop for station tours, and we also go on larger ships to give talks and raise awareness,” she said.

“At the end of January, as we watched all of this unfold, we stopped hosting tours and traveling to the big ships, so there were far fewer visitors to Palmer station this summer.”

It is difficult to say what impact, if any, the absence of visitors could have on the Antarctic tourism industry in the long term.

The number of visitors arriving here is kept relatively low in order to protect the pristine environment of the white continent.

IAATO tour operators are not permitted to disembark a vessel with more than 500 passengers on board, and all coordinate to ensure that there is only one vessel on a disembarkation site at a time given.

Coping with isolation

According to Nelson, there were fewer visitors to Palmer station this summer due to the pandemic.

According to Nelson, there were fewer visitors to Palmer station this summer due to the pandemic.

Keri Nelson

Although it is still not known how things will unfold in the coming months, those of Palmer station, as well as bases such as Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, where the number of visitors is much higher , continue to work hard, doing everything possible to ensure things are in place for next season.

In Rothera, there are no tourists except the passing yacht or the cruise ship, so things have stayed about the same in terms of head numbers.

However, Taylor, who helps keep the equipment at the base and generally keeps the facilities in order, notes that the process of transporting personnel home has changed considerably.

“Normally this would involve a flight to Punta Arenas [Chile’s southernmost city] on the Dash-7 aircraft operated by BAS, followed by travel through commercial airlines, “he explains.
“Now the RRS James Clark Ross (JCR) will remove the last of the BAS personnel from the base and take them to the Falkland Islands, where they will join the Hebridean Sky, a passenger vessel recently chartered by BAS. This will make the long journey to the UK. ”

The ship is due to leave in about the next week, and once it does, he and the rest of the Rothera team will be alone for about five months, with no staff arriving or departing.

Nelson, who divides his time between the Midwest and San Francisco in the United States, previously worked at McMurdo station and the South Pole station, before moving to Palmer station, which currently employs only 20 people.

The 45-year-old woman, who presents her Antarctic experiences on her Instagram account Simply Antarctica, admits to having found isolation difficult, even before the coronavirus crisis caused a ban on visits.

It is coping with this by adopting many of the same techniques as those outside of Antarctica currently experimenting in quarantine.

“I’m trying to find ways to have fun with personal projects,” she says. “And I also remember that time in my head is a luxury.”

However, Nelson is also stuck in a place surrounded by exceptional wildlife and fascinating natural beauty.

“The bottom line is that this part of Antarctica is beautiful,” she says. “And it’s not hard at all to get used to and thrive in such a beautiful place.”

Greater freedom

The southernmost continent is now considered

The southernmost continent is now considered “the safest place in the world”.

Keri Nelson

However, she admits to feeling a strong sense of guilt at being so far from her loved ones during such a critical period in history.

“It’s so strange to be physically at the end of the world, when at least at the beginning, some people feared that we really saw the real end of the world (or at least the end of the world as we know it,) ” she explains.

“Sometimes I feel disconnected and guilty for not being at home – what, help? Living simultaneously the challenges that everyone is?”

“Those of us here know it wouldn’t do anyone any good, and yet it’s easy to feel guilty.”

After committing to spending 18 months giving up on vacation and being separated from family and friends, Taylor is taken aback by the idea that he actually has more privileges than them at this point.

“Being in the situation where we have more freedom than if we stayed at home is difficult to manage,” he says.

“Life and work here are inextricably linked. We are extremely fortunate to be able to continue our life and work.”

Life after the coronavirus

The scientists and researchers currently based here will return to a very different reality once they are gone.

The scientists and researchers currently based here will return to a very different reality once they are gone.

Keri Nelson

Taylor is due to leave in April 2021, but notes that he will have to wait to see “what is the new state of play” before making any solid plans for his return to the UK.

“They say spending a season in Antarctica changes you,” he says. “But I can’t help but wonder if the rest of the world could change more right now than we do.”

“We will continue largely as if the coronavirus had not occurred. We have a gym, a music room, a library, a cinema … all the things that we took for granted before, which will be missed the House.”

This feeling is shared by Nelson, who was due to leave in early April, but extended it “until the arrival of a winter rescue team”.

When she, Taylor and the others finally go home, they will be greeted by a very different world. A new way of life that they have only witnessed from a distance.

The seemingly simple things they enjoy here may well become a distant memory.

“Sometimes I am very aware that I am an artifact,” says Nelson. “An echo. Still in the headspace of an existence that has already gone down in history.

“We can always socialize at will, without fear, give fives and hugs as we please, sit against each other. We don’t have to react in fear if someone coughs.

“I’m so thankful for that, and I try to really appreciate the last little while that we have to live this existence.”

“But it is also deeply sad to recognize that these little things are so remarkable now.

“And when we leave here, we’ll leave it all behind. I’m trying to force my brain to remember what it looks like – to imprint that feeling of freedom and security – so I won’t forget later.”


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