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Shutdown Forces Antarctic Research Into 'Caretaker Status'

Oct 8, 2013
Originally published on October 9, 2013 4:44 am

Earlier this week we told you that scientists who do research in Antarctica have been on pins and needles, worried that the government shutdown would effectively cancel all of their planned field work this year.

Well, those scientists just got the news they didn't want to hear.

Today, officials at the U.S. Antarctic Program posted a statement online saying they are moving to "caretaker" status at the three U.S. research stations, ships and other assets, and all research activities not essential to human safety and the preservation of property will be stopped.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for managing and coordinating the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) on behalf of the nation. This includes providing support personnel and facilities and coordinating transportation and other logistics for scientific research. Due to the lapse in appropriation, funds for this support will be depleted on or about October 14, 2013.

Without additional funding, NSF has directed its Antarctic support contractor to begin planning and implementing caretaker status for research stations, ships and other assets. The agency is required to take this step as a result of the absence of appropriation and the Antideficiency Act.

Under caretaker status, the USAP will be staffed at a minimal level to ensure human safety and preserve government property, including the three primary research stations, ships and associated research facilities. All field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended.

As NSF moves to caretaker status, it will also develop the information needed to restore the 2013-14 austral summer research program to the maximum extent possible, once an appropriation materializes. It is important to note, however, that some activities cannot be restarted once seasonally dependent windows for research and operations have passed, the seasonal workforce is released, science activities are curtailed and operations are reduced.

NSF remains committed to protecting the safety and health of its deployed personnel and to its stewardship of the USAP under these challenging circumstances.

Most research in this remote, icy continent at the bottom of the world takes place from October to February, when it's warmer and there's enough daylight. Scientists who go down there depend on things like housing and transportation provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program. It supports three research stations, including one at the South Pole, that are staffed year-round.

Update at 6:44 p.m. ET. 'Looking Pretty Bad:'

"Wow, it's looking pretty bad right now. I was a lot more optimistic yesterday," John Priscu, a Montana State University biologist who has been to Antarctica about thirty times, told us after he heard the news.

He says he was stunned by the announcement and was still trying to understand what this will mean both for his research and the entire field season down there. "I don't think anybody really knows," Priscu says.

"It's a thing that's never happened before," says Peter Doran, a professor of Earth sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was scheduled to go to Antarctica later this year. "I'm still hoping that something will happen middle-of-the-month in Congress that will turn this around."

But he says it's a huge operation to fly people in and out of McMurdo Research Station, and plans can't be made and unmade quickly.

"There's things that really that they have to do. There are people still at the South Pole Station that have been there all winter. They need to get visited to have supplies refreshed. They need fuel, all that kind of stuff," says Doran.

Research that could be affected includes biological studies of animals like penguins, as well as astrophysics and studies on the effects of climate change.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is the time of year when scientists make the long trek down to the bottom of the world to study Antarctica. They have just a few months to do their work before the icy continent sinks into its dark, frigid winter. These researchers are used to dealing with all kinds of hardships - extreme cold, fuel shortages - but this year they've been hit by something unprecedented.

The U.S. Antarctic Program says it is stopping most research activities because of the partial government shutdown. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us what's going on. Good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, how is the shutdown affecting this remote place?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, as you can imagine the fact that it's so remote means that it's very difficult to get there and move scientific equipment around. So all the logistics like housing and transportation for the scientists are handled by the U.S. Antarctic Program. It runs three research stations and things like ships. That whole program is paid for by the National Science Foundation which is shut down. So there's a funding crunch.

The government contractor for logistics in Antarctica is Lockheed Martin and Lockheed Martin's support program there is going to run out of money soon, around October 14th. Yesterday, the National Science Foundation announced that they were putting research on hold, pulling people out of Antarctica and going into what's called caretaker status.

MONTAGNE: Well, I want to ask you about caretaker status. I mean, I'm not quite sure what that means. But pulling people out? That sounds really hard.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So caretaker status, that would mean just skeleton crews at the research stations, the bare minimum to keep things going. Everybody else comes back home. And that's a big deal because this is the time of year when activity normally is ramping up.

I mean, there's advanced teams that have been going to McMurdo Research Station since August getting everything ready for the scientists to arrive. And the research season only runs from October to February. That's basically the Antarctic summer. There are some things that have to get done. For example, there are people who have over-wintered at the South Pole. That station needs to be visited and supplied with things like fuel. But other than that, it's not clear what, if anything, will happen down there this year.

MONTAGNE: So how have the scientists been reacting?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The ones I talk to are floored. I mean, they're stunned. One person who's worked in Antarctica for 30 years said that he's never seen anything like this and that it looked really bad. The National Science Foundation says that if the shutdown ends and it gets more funding, it will try to resume research. But doing work in Antarctica usually takes a ton of logistics and planning.

I mean, you're moving around airplanes and helicopters and ice breakers. Scientists say once you turn all that off, you can't just flip a switch and bring it all back online.

MONTAGNE: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some projects probably just won't be able to be restarted. Researchers worry that if they miss their narrow window to go they're basically going to miss their one chance to see what's happening in Antarctica this year.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly give us some idea of what kind of research we are talking about here that might be missed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, all kinds of things. I mean, they have telescopes down there for astrophysics. They're studying lakes under the ice sheets, looking for signs of life. They're tracking the effects of climate change. Other countries have programs down there too, like the United Kingdom and Russia, but scientists say the U.S. has the best and biggest Antarctic program in the world. And now it's on hold.

MONTAGNE: OK. So the shutdown hits the Antarctic. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.