The Atlantic

The Countries Taking Advantage of Antarctica During the Pandemic

While the West has scaled back operations in the Antarctic, Russia and China have pushed ahead.
Source: Xinhua / Getty Images

Antarctica may be the only continent that hasn’t been physically hit by the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it has been immune to its aftershocks. As the outbreak ripped across the globe, forcing governments to provide bailout programs for their citizens, countries began to stall their Antarctic programs, not least as a safeguard to prevent the coronavirus from engulfing the continent.

Australia, which dedicated nearly $190 million for its 2020–21 Antarctic programs and is one of the most significant players on the continent, said last month that it would be forced to reduce its research program there. Kim Ellis, the director of the Australian Antarctic Division, told us that the number of researchers and station workers who are usually sent for the summer season, from October to February, would be cut by about half, from 300 people to 150 to 160. This means decreased operational capacity; delays in new, major projects and infrastructure development; and a limited ability to recruit and train new teams for research. Both the British Antarctic Survey and the United States Antarctic Program are also facing challenges. The U.S. National Science Foundation, which allocated $488 million of its 2019–20 budget for the polar regions, says that “there will no doubt be implications for the next austral-summer field season,” according to Stephanie Short, the NSF’s point person for the Antarctic.

Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on and the , but they also leave a door open for, , and . Even before the pandemic, many experts we spoke with said Russia and China were using the guise of scientific research to stake further claim on the continent. Now they think that the two countries could be taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to extend their reach even more.

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