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OPP science support and operational changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic


March 31, 2020

NSF is committed to being supportive and as responsive as possible to the needs of the research community in the face of challenges posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Please consult the NSF website regularly for up-to-date information and answers to Frequently Asked Questions: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/coronavirus/.

The Office of Polar Programs (OPP) recognizes the particular challenges that COVID-19 poses for the polar research community and wishes to emphasize the following additional information. 

Necessary restrictions to contain the spread of the disease that have been put into place around the world, have changed the ability of researchers and research support staff to travel to remote polar locations. These restrictions also pose challenges for the supply chains and logistics systems upon which we rely. Moreover, it is vital that polar research and operations do not introduce COVID-19 to remote polar regions where medical capabilities are limited and would be quickly overwhelmed. While many Arctic researchers may have funds in their grant awards for travel to field sites, OPP expects you to heed the official and voluntary travel restrictions that will prevent the spread of the disease to polar communities. We understand that these issues will generate postponement of research and/or meetings as they were originally planned.  Thus, it is not business-as-usual for either the Arctic or Antarctic research enterprise for the foreseeable future.

OPP staff is intensively working via remote means to gauge impacts and to work with our community members and interagency and international partners to mitigate and plan for a future post the COVID-19 crisis. OPP Program Officers have been actively reaching out to individual investigators and investigators are encouraged to continue to keep their Program Officers apprised of their challenges and concerns. This communication summarizes at a high-level the status of operations across our programs. Further communications will be forthcoming through established pathways to keep the community informed of decisions and actions as they develop. 

Arctic Sciences Section 

Alaska Operations

The State of Alaska has imposed travel restrictions on intrastate travel and anyone arriving from out of state. Please pay close attention to the state of the Alaska website for COVID-19 (http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/default.aspx) and borough and village websites for current information. Recognize that many Alaskan communities are closed to visitors until April 15, 2020, by their borough governments.

Toolik Field Station is closed. To the extent possible, station staff will support remote access science. Reach out to Toolik Field Station (https://toolik.alaska.edu/) for more information.

International Operations

The international Forum of Arctic Research Operators (FARO), under the Chairmanship of OPP’s Dr. Jennifer Mercer, is in regular communication with all national research operators in the Arctic to understand the impacts of closures and travel restrictions on 2020 field research. FARO continues to monitor the situation and facilitate dialogue among the FARO nations to avoid the spread of COVID-19 into Arctic communities.

Greenland Operations

The Office of Polar Programs supports Summit Station in Greenland where five people from the winter crew continue to maintain station operations and science technical support. Science projects for the early 2020 field season are limited to those that can be supported with the science technicians on site. Future personnel movements will be done using screening and quarantine protocols in coordination with the Government of Greenland, which has imposed travel restrictions.

Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) Expedition

Personnel transfers to the German icebreaker Polarstern, which is intentionally frozen into the Arctic icepack as a floating observatory, are being restructured in light of travel restrictions and to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 to the vessel. Updates on MOSAiC operations are available here https://follow.mosaic-expedition.org/.  

U.S. Antarctic Program   

The U.S. Antarctic Program is taking measures to ensure the continued health of our participants in light of the emergence of COVID-19.  The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), under the Chairmanship of Dr. Kelly Falkner, OPP Director, is actively facilitating communications among the National Antarctic Programs with the objective of preventing the introduction of COVID-19 to the continent.  To mitigate the risks posed by this virus and ensure continuity of mission, the USAP has adjusted immediate operations and is carefully evaluating plans for the upcoming research season.  

Immediate Operations

All three USAP Antarctic Stations are operating safely. No indications of the virus have been detected and no new personnel have been admitted since February. 

  • McMurdo Station is staffed and fully provisioned for the winter season. Staff members and construction crews who are not needed to sustain off-season operations are returning home. Medical supplies and personal protective equipment have been reviewed and are being supplemented as needed.
  • Palmer Station summer staff will remain on-station until the winter crew can be deployed without a risk of introducing the virus. Protocols for testing and self-isolation for that crew turnover are being developed by USAP medical experts. In the meantime, the Station is provisioned for the next several months. Science events and tourist visits have been cancelled for the rest of the winter. Medical supplies and personal protective equipment have been reviewed and are being supplemented as needed.
  • South Pole Station is in winter status. The Station is provisioned with food, fuel, and medical supplies for the winter. There are no flights planned to South Pole Station for the next several months. 

2020/2021 Antarctic Field Season

As we foresee significant impacts to USAP operations through the coming months, USAP has begun to re-evaluate activities currently planned, as well as those proposed, for the 2020/2021 season. From discussions with our international Antarctic partners through COMNAP, we expect significant disruptions to travel routes we rely on for our deployers. We also expect impacts to our U.S. support partners, such as the Air National Guard that are playing a critical role in COVID-19 response activities.

We will continue to reach out to our grantees, contractors, interagency, and international collaborators as we evaluate options for research and operations. It is our goal to have a more complete picture of expected impacts to the end of the Arctic field season and upcoming Antarctic season by the end of May.

We want to emphasize that personal safety is the highest priority and we hope that you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy in this difficult time.

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2020 budget of $8.3 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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