Shutdown damaging Antarctic research

03:42, Oct 08 2013

Hundreds of United States scientists in Antarctica are facing evacuation, many of them to Christchurch, as funding dries up in Washington's continuing government shutdown.

A decision is expected by the end of the week and if scientists are forced out science media say it will be a disaster.

The US has three major bases including McMurdo Station, next to New Zealand's Scott Base, as well as Amundsen-Scott at the South Pole and Palmer on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Any shutdown by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will have severe implications for the Christchurch-based Antarctica New Zealand which shares facilities and the vast logistics associated with the summer programme.

An Antarctic NZ official said that so far the US government shutdown had not affected the New Zealand programme in Antarctica.

"We are, however, following the situation in the US and keeping in close contact with our partners at the NSF and their McMurdo Station," a spokeswoman said.

Nature magazine says the NSF will decide within a week on what to do.

Nature said the NSF had kept the stations open during the first days of the shutdown, which began on October 1, under rules designed to protect lives and US government property.

But Lockheed Martin, the contractor that runs the NSF's Antarctic operations, has told researchers that it will run out of money by mid-October.

Nature said the company would be forced to evacuate all but a skeleton staff at the bases.

That would spell the end to this year's research season, which normally runs from October to February.

"We are in a major planning mode to begin an orderly transition to caretaker mode at the stations," a Lockheed official wrote in an October 4 email to researchers.

"A decision will be made early next week."

Nature said researchers were devastated.

The prospect of losing an entire Antarctic field season is "just hell", said Diana Wall, an ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Since 1989, she has tracked fluctuations in the populations of nematodes, mites and other soil dwellers in Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

"If we are not there to capture the demographics this year, our whole data set could be unintelligible," she said.

US National Public Radio said scientists feared the year's entire research season would effectively be cancelled - that scientists and logistical support workers would be called back home, and only skeleton crews left.

"Just a week ago, even though we knew about the government shutdown and everything, we weren't really thinking it would impact us and our field season," Peter Doran, a professor of earth sciences from the University of Illinois in Chicago told NPR.

"What a difference a week makes. Now it all seems very uncertain."

Doran notedthe US had the largest and most impressive Antarctic program in the world.

"I mean, we can do things that other countries can't do because of the great logistic support that we've had for years," he said.

The thought of all the science that wouldn't get done if there is a pullback is depressing to Doran.

"And the waste of money is just heartbreaking," he adds.

"All the equipment that's been shipped down already for this field season, all the people having to reverse all that - for nothing? It really kind of makes me ill."

John Priscu, a Montana State University biologist who has been to Antarctica about 30 times, told NPR that if the programme was put on to a caretaker status it would be hard to reverse the situation quickly.

"In Antarctica the planning is so intense," Priscu said.

"I mean, we're scheduling Department of Defence aircraft and icebreakers.

"The planning goes on years ahead. I don't think you can just throw a switch and say, 'OK, we're better now'."

So far the US Antarctic Program has only said that there were a small number of "excepted" employees who would will remain on the job expressly to ensure the safety of personnel and property.

"At no time will we compromise our ability to access our personnel for safety and continue operations as appropriate," it said.

"We will continue to house, feed, and provide care for our personnel currently in Antarctica without exception."

One major project to be hit will be Operation IceBridge that is measuring Antarctica's ice shelf

Also affected would be the study of Antarctica's sub-glacial lakes, pristine environments that have been isolated for millions of years.

Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, had planned to continue his study of Lake Whillans, a body of water trapped 800 metres under a glacier. Earlier this year, a drilling expedition reached the lake, and researchers found communities of bacteria.

Powell is now trying to understand how isolated the lake is - whether it connects to nearby sub-glacial streams, and how that network of water affects the glacier's flow into the Ross Sea