In March 2020, staff at McMurdo Station, the main US research base in Antarctica, thought the future was bright. Long-planned renovations had begun, including replacing the decrepit dormitories with shiny new lodges capable of housing more than 200 people. But then the pandemic hit, ending most of the two summer field seasons at McMurdo and other polar research sites, mostly in Antarctica and Greenland. In some places, the effects of this shutdown will linger for the rest of the decade, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced this week, delaying projects and limiting access to one of the rarest resources in geoscience: the time on the ice.
In Greenland, government entry restrictions kept most researchers away in the summer of 2021. Although the NSF has kept its high-altitude Summit station in operation year-round, only minimal maintenance has taken place, explains Jennifer Mercer, chief of the NSF Arctic Section. Since almost a meter of snow falls on the camp each year, this summer will require a lot of snow removal. “We have a constant battle to keep buildings above ground level,” Mercer says.
After the excavations, research in Greenland will be about to return to normal. That’s not the case in Antarctica, where “we’ve been saturated for some time in key logistics areas,” says Stephanie Short, Antarctic logistics manager at NSF. No work has been done on McMurdo’s renovation in the past 2 years, and space in the old dorms had to be reserved to accommodate possible COVID-19 cases, leaving the agency further down. of 200 beds. “To regain our full strength,” Short says, “we need this accommodation building.”
For now, research in Antarctica will prioritize ongoing projects that feature either strong international participation – such as the international collaboration on the Thwaites Glacier – or critical annual measurements, says Michael Jackson, Antarctic Earth Science Manager at the NSF. New start-ups will favor projects led by early-career researchers. But some new projects will still have to be delayed, he says. “It’s heartbreaking for us,” he said. “Having to call someone who’s been postponed for 2 years and tell them they’re postponed again is not a good call.”
One such deferred project is a plan to drill into the Dome of Hercules, a stretch of ice 400 kilometers from the South Pole. Ice cores from the dome could capture evidence of when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet last collapsed in a slightly warmer climate and help predict when it might happen again. When the NSF agreed to fund the project in 2020, researchers thought drilling could begin by 2023. Now 2025 seems more likely, says Eric Steig, the project’s principal investigator and glaciologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. .
Steig says the pandemic hit a business that was already overstretched. “NSF is always planning more projects [in Antarctica] than they are likely to be able to handle, so even without COVID we are still experiencing significant delays. And despite the agency’s plan to prioritize early-career projects, he says, many young researchers may be left behind, as projects led by senior researchers also typically support many early-stage researchers. career. But there are no simple solutions, and “I have great faith in the people responsible for the NSF program,” he says.
For all the misery of the pandemic, it has also spurred collaboration between American researchers and agencies in Greenland, including the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Early on, Greenlandic researchers worked on an NSF project led by Columbia University. It aims to help several Greenlandic communities understand the effect of climate change on local sea levels, which are unexpectedly likely to drop by the end of the century, some by several meters, as the earth rebounds after losing the weight of the ice and the gravitational pull of the massive ice cap on the surrounding ocean ebbs.
The Greenlandic researchers were able to continue working on the project even without the Columbia team present, says Kirsty Tinto, a Columbia geophysicist. They interviewed community leaders – hunters, fishermen, town planners – about how they use the waterfront. And Greenlandic geophysics students were able to sail on cruises that mapped the harbor’s seabed. “All sorts of serendipity happened in this setting,” says Tinto.
Even before the pandemic, this was a different type of geoscience project, one focused on local collaboration and politics. But the pandemic has shown its resilience, says Tinto. “I don’t like pandemics. I don’t like global desperation. But, she says, “I like to have my expectations mixed up.”