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Few scientists will reach the “deep field” of Antarctica this upcoming season.

Kelly Brunt/National Science Foundation

Coronavirus forces United States, United Kingdom to cancel Antarctic field research

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

The coronavirus pandemic had already canceled one summer field research season. Now it has come for another: the Antarctic summer. The National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) announced this week that the United States and United Kingdom would put most of their planned Antarctic research into deep freeze, including their ambitious joint campaign to study Thwaites Glacier, the Antarctic ice sheet most at risk of near-term melting.

So far, efforts to prevent the novel coronavirus from infecting staff at the three U.S. stations and three U.K. stations on the continent have been successful. The highest priority for the agencies for the coming field season, during Antarctica’s summer from October to March, will be to keep these stations operating and their staff safe, the agencies say. Science measurements at the stations will continue, but “deep field” work at distant sites will be postponed in nearly all circumstances, as will planned work to modernize McMurdo Station, the primary U.S. base.

That delay is especially painful for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), the largest field project Antarctica has ever seen. Thwaites is in a remote corner of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, requiring massive logistical support for ITGC researchers to conduct their work. The 2020–21 season was set to be ITGC’s second on the ice—and perhaps its most critical.

Now, ITGC plans for only a few support staff to visit the glacier to protect and maintain equipment left on the ice. “Working in Antarctica always brings surprises and disappointments, and as ever the safety of everyone is paramount,” David Vaughn, director of science at BAS, said in a statement announcing the delay.

Antarctic researchers are now left to hope 1 year off won’t derail their measurements. As Alison Banwell, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, put it: “Let’s hope the data on our deployed instruments stay safe until the following year.”

New Zealand has announced similar restrictions on its Antarctic research, and most nations active on the continent are expected to announce similar steps.