Planning each season for the Australian Antarctic Program is a complex logistical operation and huge undertaking.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Antarctic season will be unlike any other.

Just ask Charlton Clark. He’s the Australian Antarctic Division’s General Manager of Operations and Safety, heading an agile team that’s used to adapting to sudden change.

“Each year brings its own challenges of working in Antarctica and so much of what we do on the continent is driven by the weather and climate,” said Mr Clark.

“So we have a very short period each summer where we can resupply our stations and change over our personnel.”

Mr Clark said the team was used to “seeing blizzards keep a runway unserviceable for a week at a time or to respond to other nations who might call for assistance with their program.”

“This year, we’ve got the added challenge of COVID-19 to deal with, but there are preparations underway at the moment to look at a range of contingencies and we’ll exercise those contingencies prior to the season starting,” he said.

About 250, or roughly half of the usual number of Australian expeditioners are due to travel south this season to Davis, Mawson and Casey research stations in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.

They’ll comprise essential staff to keep the stations operational and maintain a small selection of wildlife and climate monitoring projects. Many science projects are on hold for a year, with laboratory work able to continue at the AAD in Hobart and at other research institutions.

Keeping Antarctica quarantined

Antarctica remains COVID-19 free and Mr Clark said expeditioners travelling south this season would be subject to a range of strict quarantine measures before leaving Tasmania.

“It’s a new experience for all of us getting the quarantine period and arrangements right,” he said.

“We’re working with the state controller here in Tasmania to look at the arrangements for bringing people in to Tasmania and then quarantine before they travel on to Antarctica.”

“We’ll also be looking at our logistics and supply chains to ensure that there are no pathways for COVID to make its way to Antarctica.”

About eight flights are scheduled between Hobart and Wilkins Aerodrome near Casey station.

With a delayed delivery of Australia’s new icebreaker RSV Nuyina, and the end of lease of the Aurora Australis, the AAD will use a new interim ship, MPV (multi-purpose vessel) Everest.

The ice-strengthened ship will travel from the Sea of Japan and is expected to arrive in Hobart in late November or early December, when it too will be quarantined.

Everest will be able to access Davis and Mawson stations later in the season when the sea ice starts to clear, and is scheduled to make three voyages south over the Antarctic summer.

The usual aircraft chartered by the AAD to fly between stations have been cancelled due to the uncertainty and risks created by the coronavirus, as they travel to Antarctica from Canada, through the Americas.

Staying for an extra summer

The changes in shipping and aviation caused by the pandemic have delayed the return home for some teams for up to four months, with around 25 expeditioners now spending an extra summer on the ice and due to return on the Everest in March.

“Particularly for Davis and Mawson, the only opportunity to access in and out and resupply the station is by ship,” said Mr Clark.

“That’s quite different to how we’ve operated in the last few years, so it makes it even more important to get those resupplies right and that’s going to be our focus in January and February in 2021.”

Mr Clark said the AAD was working with current expeditioners to offer support and training, as well as supporting their friends, families and colleagues. He said while some were pleased to spend more time in Antarctica, there were inevitably some challenges for others who would be spending additional time away from their loved ones.

Davis station leader David Knoff said his team was informed just after midwinter and there was no doubt the news about their delayed departure had been challenging.

“Coming into spring, we’re just starting to see a glimmer of light and it’s still something like 200 days until we’re back in Australia,” he said.

“So trying to break that down into logical steps, like when do the flights start into Casey, when is the ship going to head to Casey, when does the ship even start?”

“Those milestones are a bit closer and we can tick them off, and we’ll wake up one day and the MPV Everest will be out in front of me here in Prydz Bay,” said Mr Knoff at Davis station.

Working with other Antarctic nations

Arrangements are in place with other Antarctic nations in the event of a need for an aeromedical emergency, and similarly to Australia, other countries are adopting measures in their season planning to ensure the continent remains COVID-19 free.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep COVID out of Antarctica and not to put pressure on the system,” Mr Clark said.

“This year in Antarctica is presenting challenges for the entire Antarctic community. Every year brings its surprises and twists and turns and this year is just an added layer.”

“We’ve got great leaders in our station leaders, our voyage leaders, and they’re all used to dealing with curveballs. This is just one large curveball that has been thrown at us and most people are responding in an amazing way.”