Czech researchers heading to Antarctica despite Covid-19 pandemic

Johann Gregor Mendel Antarctic base, photo: archive of Masaryk University Brno

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Czech scientists from Masaryk University in Brno are heading for their annual expedition to Antarctica. Due to the complicated situation, the university has reduced the number of team members to a minimum. Their main goal will be to maintain the long-term scientific research and continue with data collection.

The members of the Czech Antarctic expedition set on the journey to Antarctica already on December 16. After undergoing quarantine and taking coronavirus tests they are now waiting for a ship that will take them from Chile to Antarctica. Daniel Nývlt, head of the Czech Antarctic Research Programme, who is in daily contact with the team members, spoke to Czech Radio:

Daniel Nývlt | Photo: archive of Daniel Nývlt

"They are actually not heading straight to Antarctica. They will spend about ten days on board before reaching the Gregor Mendel polar station on James Ross Island. The boat will make several stops on the South Shetland islands to unload fuel and other material for other polar bases."

The Czech scientific mission on James Ross Island has been studying ice formation and wildlife with regard to climate change for several years now. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the number of researchers heading to Antarctica this year has been significantly reduced and the team includes mainly younger people, who can better cope with the travel-related complications, explains Daniel Nývlt:

"Usually, there are around 12 to 15 people heading to Antarctica, sometimes even more. This year, we reduced their number to eight. There are five scientists, an expedition doctor and two technicians to manage the operation of the station.

"The researchers are not going to launch any new scientific projects this year, but they will continue with the long-term monitoring project.  The continuity of the project is really important for us in order to maintain the Czech Antarctic Research Programme."

Nelson Island,  photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno

Apart from the station on James Ross Island, Czech researchers are also running a polar base on Nelson Island, established in the 1980s by Czechoslovak traveller Jaroslav Pavlíček. It is currently owned by Czech Antarctic Foundation and operated by the Masaryk University. Daniel Nývlt again:

"We have already launched a basic research programme at the base in cooperation with our colleagues from Chile, Portugal and Korea. The project for the reconstruction of the station has recently been approved.

"Masaryk University and Czech Antarctic Foundation cooperate with Brno’s Faculty of Architecture, whose students are working on an architectural design and a small prototype of the station and we will be testing some of the technologies that they have proposed. Once we raise finances, we can build a new base with a seasonal capacity of eight people."

If everything goes according to plan, Czech researchers are scheduled to return to the Czech Republic at the beginning of April. Last year’s expedition was delayed by six weeks due to complications related to Covid outbreak.