Shutdown heads south; Antarctic stations shuttered (Update)

October 8, 2013 by Seth Borenstein

The U.S. federal government shutdown is reaching all the way down to the South Pole.

The National Science Foundation announced Tuesday that it is putting its three Antarctic scientific stations in deep freeze just as scientists are starting to arrive for the start of a new research season.

The NSF runs three stations in Antarctica spending just under $400 million a year there. It often takes weeks for some 1200 researchers who spend Antarctic spring and summer there to get to the southern continent by boat or plane.

"This is absurd, just absurd," said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation's largest science organization. "It's a very big logistical enterprise and this could jeopardize the entire research season for hundreds of important projects."

Researchers study astronomy, particle physics, climate change, and biology in the pristine continent, usually starting in October when the weather warms in the southern spring. The largest station is McMurdo but there are also stations at the South Pole and the Antarctic peninsula.

In a terse statement on its website, the NSF announced that "all field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended" because the agency runs out of money to operate the stations as of Oct. 14. The agency told its logistics contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., to move to "caretaker status" in which a skeletal crew will remain to protect property and safety.

If funding resumes, officials will try to resume some research. However, some studies cannot be restarted, the NSF said. NSF and Lockheed Martin officials did not respond to phone calls and email requests for comment.

A ship had been scheduled to arrive Wednesday with researchers, including those working on a long-term study that has tracked penguins and other creatures since 1990, said Brown University doctoral student Catherine Luria who was working with colleagues now there. That work, coordinated by Hugh Ducklow of Columbia University, relied on statistics and trend that need to be unbroken.

"If we miss a year, we'll never get it back again," said Ducklow, who has tracked a 95 percent drop in Adelie penguin population over the years. "It's pretty devastating for our project."

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researcher Sarah Das was in Antarctica the last time the federal government shutdown in 1995 and 1996 and said it didn't stop work then. She said the announcement "saddens and angers me."

Luria, who has spent nine months in Antarctica, said she can't imagine what it will be like for the handful of staff who have to remain: "It sounds truly lonely to me."

Explore further: South Pole website celebrates a century of science

Related Stories

South Pole website celebrates a century of science

December 15, 2011

A century ago, two groups of explorers crossed the Antarctic continent, competing for the distinction of being the first to stand at the geographic South Pole. Norwegian native Roald Amundsen and his men won that race. His ...

Australian jet in Antarctica rescue mission

August 9, 2012

An Australian medical team and government jet have been dispatched to Antarctica to attempt a landing on an ice runway to rescue a sick scientist from the United States' McMurdo Station base.

Australia's Antarctic runway melting

October 24, 2012

Australia said Wednesday it was searching for a new aircraft landing site for planes supplying its three bases in Antarctica because the current runway is melting.

Plane carrying 3 Canadians missing in Antarctica

January 24, 2013

Bad weather has forced rescuers to wait until Friday to try to reach a small plane believed to have crashed in an Antarctic mountain range while carrying three Canadians between scientific research stations on the continent.

Recommended for you

Amazon deforestation leaps 16 percent in 2015

November 28, 2015

Illegal logging and clearing of Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 16 percent in the last year, the government said, in a setback to the aim of stopping destruction of the world's greatest forest by 2030.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2013
Another forced closure of important research due the intransigence of a radical minority of republican POS's. I can not understand how any real patriot could ever put these roaches in such places of power.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.