In March 2020, staff at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research base in Antarctica, thought the future was bright. Long-planned renovations had begun, including the replacement of decrepit dorms by glossy new lodges capable of housing more than 200 people. But then the pandemic struck, shutting down most of two summer field seasons at McMurdo and other polar research sites, mainly in Antarctica and Greenland. In some places the effects of that 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: time on the ice.
In Greenland, the government’s entry restrictions kept most researchers away in the summer of 2021. Although NSF kept its high-altitude Summit Station running year-round, only minimal maintenance occurred, says Jennifer Mercer, NSF’s Arctic section head. Given that nearly 1 meter of snow falls each year on the camp, this summer will require a lot of literal digging out. “We have a constant battle maintaining buildings above grade,” Mercer says.
After the dig-out, research in Greenland will be about back to normal. Not so in Antarctica, where “we’re saturated for a while in key logistics areas,” says Stephanie Short, NSF’s head of Antarctic logistics. No work has been done on the McMurdo renovation for the past 2 years, and space in the old dorms had to be reserved to house possible COVID-19 cases, leaving the agency down by more than 200 beds. “To get back to full strength,” Short says, “we need that lodging building.”
For now, research in Antarctica will prioritize ongoing projects that feature either heavy international participation—such as the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration—or critical annual measurements, says Michael Jackson, head of Antarctic earth sciences at NSF. New starts will be biased toward projects led by early-career researchers. But some new projects will have to be delayed again, he says. “That’s heartbreaking for us,” he says. “Having to call somebody that’s been deferred for 2 years and telling them they’re deferred again—that’s not a good call.”
In 2019, before the pandemic, workers were able to keep Summit station shoveled out.U.S. National Science Foundation
One of those deferred projects is a plan to drill into Hercules Dome, an expanse of ice 400 kilometers from the South Pole. Ice cores from the dome could capture evidence of the last time the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed in a slightly warmer climate, and aid in predicting when it might happen again. When NSF agreed to fund the project in 2020, researchers thought drilling might begin by 2023. Now, 2025 looks more likely, says Eric Steig, the project’s principal investigator and a glaciologist at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Steig says the pandemic hit an enterprise that was already stretched. “NSF is always planning on more projects [in Antarctica] than they are likely to be able to support, so even without COVID we always run into major delays.” And despite the agency’s plan to give priority to early-career projects, he says, many young researchers may be left in the cold, as projects led by senior researchers also typically support many early-career researchers. But there are no simple solutions, and “I have a lot of confidence in the NSF program managers,” he says.
For all the misery of the pandemic, it has also spurred collaboration between U.S. researchers and agencies in Greenland, including the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. From the start, Greenlandic researchers worked on an NSF project led by Columbia University. It seeks to help several Greenlandic communities understand the effect of climate change on their local sea levels, which are, counterintuitively, likely to fall by century’s end, some by several meters, as land rebounds after it sheds ice weight and the gravitational pull of the massive ice sheet on the surrounding ocean ebbs.
The Greenlandic researchers were able to keep working on the project even without the in-person presence of the Columbia team, says Kirsty Tinto, a Columbia geophysicist. They interviewed community leaders—hunters, fishers, city planners—about how they use the waterfront. And Greenlandic geophysics students got to sail on cruises that mapped harbor sea floors. “All sorts of serendipity happened within this,” Tinto says.
Even before the pandemic, it was a different kind of geoscience project, with its focus on local collaboration and policy. But the pandemic showed its resilience, Tinto says. “I don’t like pandemics. I don’t like global despair.” But, she says, “I do like having my expectations confounded.”
Source by www.science.org