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‘For a scientist working in polar regions, the COVID pandemic feels like moving a penguin into a tropical rainforest – simply a paradox situation.’

A metaphor used by Dr. Birgit Sattler to describe the present time. As the world was hit by this immense health-crisis, ‘postponed’ has turned into a familiar description of the situation within polar research. What does this pause and interruption mean for polar research and the scientists?

The Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) encourages polar research in polar ecology, cryosphere and climate as well as social and cultural systems. As the pandemic has become our companion for over a year, the APRI working groups are facing massive challenges, especially concerning expeditions and fieldwork for data collection.

‘Online social communication has been a good step to take while we wait for a time, in which we can have conversations next to the coffee machine again’ mentioned Jorrit van der Schot, an early career scientist in snow climatology, who first met his colleagues and fellow researchers only in a virtual reality. The lack of real social interaction is a major concern for academics. As exchange of information, developing joint projects and publications and networking, which enhances the visibility within a research community, is often taking place in informal personal conversations. Immersing into a virtual and somewhat distant world, the researchers try to overcome the ‘waiting time’ while work routines and field trips are on hold. But as Dr. Annett Bartsch, managing director of b.geos, outlines: ‘We try to substitute fieldwork partially with e.g. a citizen science type of approach – including people from the general public, living in the Arctic, in the scientific data collection processes, as not everything can be postponed.’ This shows that the pandemic potentially creates innovative methodological approaches. Scientists try to avoid gaps in long-term data collection processes, because ‘time-sensitive and weather-dependent measurements, as for example with climate monitoring, are at stake during the dynamic changes of lockdown measures and travel restrictions’, explain Dr. Marion Greilinger and Mag. Stefan Reisenhofer from the ZAMG.

Snapshot from home office routines

Academics are experiencing cancellation of projects or funding as well as reduced networking opportunities, while remaining in home office. Frequently stretching hours of screen-time is necessary to maintain their collaborations with partners around the globe. These stressors affecting work and personal well-being are emphasised by several APRI members: ‘As time and nights pass by, lack of concentration and reduced productivity emerge. This is due to the multitude of uncertainty factors.’ Dr. Gertrude Saxinger, anthropologist at APRI, points out an essential problem: ‘The research funds are project-based and limited to a fixed period. By far not all funding authorities extend the funding due to the pandemic. Still, salaries have to be paid.‘

‘Making the best out of the situation that presents itself’, seems a common effort of faculty members, polar researchers and early career scientists. A benefit was described by Susanna Gartler, doctoral candidate in anthropology, ‘I found that there was more time to focus on some aspects of my work such as writing and reading, which had suffered during the past years because of extensive travel and fieldwork.’ Yet, as the waiting period continues, ‘it gets harder to focus on work, especially on larger projects that are time and energy consuming. The uncertainties around when I can go back to the field remains.’ Dr. Gertrude Saxinger adds: ‘The uncertainty for the data collection remains. As the Arctic is sparsely populated and moderately urbanised, the vaccination can reach the population with a delay. Medical care in case of a Corona infection is a challenge under these circumstances. Another reason why researchers currently stay away from the Arctic and its inhabitants.’ Pausing while still moving forward, scientists hold on to their optimistic future outlooks to resume work and continue with research projects and field work.

Iceberg reflections from Sermeq Kujalleq (Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland)

‘The silence caused by COVID-19 is also a good thing for these special oases’ highlights Dr. Birgit Sattler. She explains that ‘by the travel bans many vulnerable ecosystems have the possibility to recover from anthropogenic impacts, which is also caused by actions driven by science.’

‘Digital communication tools, which only became a routine during the pandemic, show that travelling for conferences might not always be necessary. In this way, academic CO2-footprint can be reduced for the better in the foreseeable future.’

Dr. Gertrude Saxinger

Media information

Written by the APRI-Media Team.
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Photos, when not stated otherwise: Anna Burdenski
Header photo: Christoph Ruhsam with virus-png from

About the scientific author

Anna Burdenski, University of Vienna