Profiles of Norwegian Science

COVID-19 affecting Antarctic research

Antarctic research: A Norwegian flag with stitching that says "South Pole" in Norwegian on it

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Antarctic (and Arctic) exploration memorabilia can be found in the Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway.

Agder, Norway

COVID-19 has hit all continents, including the only one not permanently inhabited: Antarctica. Almost all tourism to the southern continent has been stopped and is unlikely to resume until at least this year’s Southern Hemisphere late spring. The main continuing work is science.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) endorsed and supported a project to understand how the pandemic and measures to address it are affecting Antarctic science, along with determining what support would best help those affected. Concerns relate to everyone involved, including scientists, technicians, research support staff, ship and aircraft crews, and base staff from cooks to electricians.

Norway, as the only country with territorial claims in both the Arctic and Antarctic, is committed to research at the southern latitudes. Antarctic science has substantially changed over the past 15 months.

Travel restrictions, alongside those not wishing to risk infecting others or risk becoming infected while traveling, have curtailed a good proportion of on-site work in Antarctica. Archival and laboratory data collection across other continents has suffered similarly.

Research that has progressed without interruption in some cases is typically focused on staying at home working online. Even this work has not proceeded smoothly, as scientists coped with caring responsibilities, increased teaching and administrative workloads, and stress about being isolated, family and friends getting sick, job security, and perhaps themselves becoming ill.

Many researchers are fortunate in that they still have jobs, although it remains unclear how many universities, government organizations, and research institutes might fold or lay off staff. The latter is especially worrisome for those with reduced duties because of illness (including long-term COVID-19) or family commitments.

To understand these situations better, SCAR’s project—also supported by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), the New Zealand TransAntarctic Association (NZ-TAA), and the University of Canterbury, New Zealand—included a voluntary online survey. Led by Dr.  Daniela Liggett and Dr. Andrea Herbert at the University of Canterbury, a multi-continental team drafted, translated, and disseminated the questions.

The internationally scattered group enjoyed the impressively organized project leadership and the amazing commitment of the project members, who attend meetings at all hours, since finding a convenient hour for everyone is impossible. I am one of two scientists involved who has a Norwegian institutional affiliation.

Out of 406 useable survey respondents, six said that they are based in Norway, of which one said that they are Norwegian. The six are evenly split between men and women, with ages between 20 and 49. Four said that they are early career researchers, meaning that they have been working in research for up to five years after their doctorate, excluding career breaks. Only one had children living with them.

At the time of the survey, none had knowingly had COVID-19, nor did they report infected family members. All enjoyed the benefits of working from home but with mixed responses about being able to take advantage of online networking and events.

Nonetheless, all six affirmed that their science had suffered because of COVID-19. Five of them conduct research while physically in Antarctica, and they had been expecting to go there in 20202021. Three trips were canceled, and two have been postponed to this coming Southern Hemisphere summer.

In bad news for science contributing knowledge to society, not a single respondent in Norway felt that their scientific output could increase during the pandemic. They also felt that this negative productivity would continue for a while, with four of them expecting worse results than usual until 2022.

Most frustrating is that, across the six respondents, few certain options existed for them to try to mitigate the problems. As always, more funding opportunities and increased mentorship for professional support were prominent. Mental health counseling was also of interest.

Fundamentally, the key for a lot of the research is access to Antarctica. Without it, we lose understanding of the planet due to the loss of at least one summer’s data and, more importantly, likely reductions in research funding and career positions.

Some of the survey answers from Norway indicated possibilities for slight shifts in research topics. In most cases, doing so was far from suitable. Even when researchers are willing and able to alter their scientific interests and succeed in doing so, it still means a huge loss to humanity of data about what is actually happening across the most isolated continent as indicators for the rest of the planet.

Irrespective of the pandemic-related opportunities that are grasped, perhaps one response to the question “What actions, if any, did you take to overcome the negative impact on your research caused by COVID-19?” captures the world’s mood. The scientist ticked “Other” and typed “Does crying count?”

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.