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Polar explorers confirm bird flu in Antarctica

The 20th Masaryk University expedition returned from Antarctica this weekend after spending two months on the icy continent. Logistical and weather problems made this expedition to the Mendel Polar Station the shortest so far.

The J.G. Mendel Station has been serving researchers on James Ross Island in Antarctica since 2007.

This year’s expedition consisted of 24 members divided into two groups. The smaller group of eight set off at the end of last year to the CZ*ECO Nelson base on Nelson Island in the South Shetland archipelago. The main group of 16 set off for the Mendel Polar Station on James Ross Island in Antarctica on 24 January this year. The entire expedition lasted 59 days, but due to logistical problems and bad weather, the polar explorers only spent 17 days on James Ross Island. The remaining six days were spent on King George Island. This is the shortest time spent in Antarctica of any of the 20 expeditions to date.  

“First there was a storm in the Drake Passage, then the ship that was supposed to take the expedition to the site broke down. There was also a lot of sea ice off James Ross Island, which made it difficult for the expedition to land safely and then return,” said expedition leader Peter Váczi from the Department of Experimental Biology at the MU Faculty of Science. He added that it was not possible to disembark at the usual location near the station, so the expedition had to use all-terrain quad bikes to transport all the equipment from a makeshift dock to the station. The expedition left the island about a week earlier than planned due to poor weather forecasts and the Chilean crew’s concerns about sea ice formation.

The main part of the Czech expedition during the flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago de Chile.

The main part of the expedition consisted of nine researchers (one from Charles University), one doctor and four technicians. They were accompanied by two documentary filmmakers: Petr Horký, an experienced traveller, polar explorer and documentary filmmaker who has made expeditions to all three poles (North, South and Cold), and Jan Šimánek, a cameraman. Both were preparing a documentary for Czech Television about the Czech Antarctic Research Programme.

Endangered penguins

Working with the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), researchers have confirmed the presence of a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus at the site. The virus is likely to be carried by migratory bird species such as South Polar skuas and petrels. It poses a significant risk to bird colonies, including penguins, and the number of cases has increased in recent weeks. The decimation of some penguin populations cannot be ruled out. “There is no penguin colony near the Czech station, the conditions there are not suitable. However, we have recorded the death of five skuas out of a total of about 50 breeding birds, i.e. about ten percent of the population of these birds on the ice-covered part of James Ross Island,” said biologist Miloš Barták from the Faculty of Science. He added that the presence of bird flu had also been confirmed by a laboratory at the Escudero station on King George Island in Chile. This is the first recorded bird death caused by the H5N1 virus in the eastern part of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The hottest February on record

Despite the lack of time, the polar explorers have managed to complete the main planned activities on site. “We always have more work planned for the expedition than time allows. This is a proven cure for cabin fever. This year, despite all the difficulties, we managed to do the most important things, especially ensuring long-term monitoring of the natural environment and climate,” said Daniel Nývlt, head of the Czech Antarctic Research Programme from the Faculty of Science.

The aim of this year's expedition was also to monitor polar geosystems and ecosystems.

The aim of this year's expedition was also to monitor polar geosystems and ecosystems. Scientists are monitoring the state of glaciers, permafrost and deglaciated areas that allow lower plants to grow. “The rate of warming in Antarctica is much faster than we thought until recently. In our 20 years of observations, we have recorded the fourth warmest temperatures on record during the expedition. This February was the hottest on record, with several days around 10 degrees Celsius, which is extremely hot for this part of the world. In addition to high temperatures, dust storms are becoming more frequent, accelerating the process of glacial melting,” said Kamil Láska from the Department of Geography at the MU Faculty of Science.

The research team also continued the five-year JUNIOR STAR project, which from 2022 will focus on studying permafrost changes on the Antarctic Peninsula. It also includes medical and psychological research into the effects of stress on the health of workers in polar regions, conducted in collaboration with the University Hospital in Ostrava, the MU Faculty of Sports Studies and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

The Mendel Polar Station has been serving researchers on James Ross Island in Antarctica since 22 February 2007, when it was inaugurated and christened by the then Dean of the Faculty of Science, Milan Gellnar. Its construction was preceded by several years of work by experts from Masaryk University, which owns and operates the station. The second base, formerly known as Eco-Nelson, is located on Nelson Island in the South Shetland archipelago and now serves as a technical and logistical refuge as part of the research programme’s infrastructure under the name CZ*ECO Nelson. The building was acquired from a private owner, the Czech Antarctic Foundation, which leased it to Masaryk University for 99 years in 2018.