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October 15, 2013

What's Up Down South

This is the iceblog, after all.

The effect of the government shutdown on research in Antarctica has made it to the news, but of course can't get to the full extent of what's happening. I can't, either, but at least I can maybe offer up a little extra insight, since I'm still in touch with lots of ice friends. And regardless, I feel like I need to comment on it here.

First, some basic facts, as far as I know them:

- Why is the Antarctic Program affected by the shutdown?
The U.S. Antarctic Program is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is part of the government. Services are provided by Lockheed Martin, which is affected by the government shutdown by way of funding (because they are funded for this work by the NSF, which is shut down).

- Why does it matter that the shutdown is *now*?
In a nutshell: Tis the season! The Antarctic sun is coming up and this is when things down there get cranking.

There are three work seasons for McMurdo Station, by far the biggest of the three US stations down there: winter (Feb - Aug, no flights), winfly (Aug - Sept, minimal flights), and main body (Oct - Feb, lots of flights and projects and research, plus flights in and out of the South Pole Station). We're right at the beginning of "main body," the time window when everything really happens down there. Folks were starting to head down when the shutdown occurred.

- What's the current status of the Antarctic season?
The NSF ordered the Antarctic program into "caretaker status" last week, meaning it's going down to a skeleton crew that can maintain only essential activities on stations.

The program has started sending people back. People were turned back in Los Angeles and in Christchurch, New Zealand, on their way down to the Ice. They have also started shipping folks out of Antarctica. Some personnel deemed essential will still be heading down. Many people are waiting to see what will happen. This applies to both researchers and contractors.

Some (much?) of the season will hopefully be salvaged, and hopefully sooner than later (come on, government), but the season is already not normal.

Now this is the stuff that's non-factual, and things that I'm curious about as well.

- How will research be affected?
Long-term data sets are going to be missing data points. (Big data points--I don't mean to minimize their importance. And data points that can only be collected in this one time window.)

Some friends and I are concerned in particular, though, about shorter projects, that only have two to three years to collect data, and about grad students that are counting on timely data collection for the timely completions of their degrees.

- What are the other effects?
The Antarctic stations are run by contractors. Many of these employees are seasonal, and this is not only their adventure (mostly for the first-timers) and their family (a community forms and bonds over the years), but their primary source of income for the year. Many of these employees are now finding themselves without a job. (BTW--There are grassroots job and housing boards springing up for Ice folks, by Ice alumni.) Also, this means, should the NSF try to ramp the season back up, much of their workforce will likely have dispersed.

So, as touched on the in NYTimes article linked below, it's more than just scientists who are affected (the NYTimes says 3,000 Americans work through the Antarctic summer--that includes scientists and support staff).

For more, here's what else the Times has to say today:

An American Shutdown Reaches the Earth’s End

The best resource would probably be the reporter for the Antarctic Sun, but unfortunately he's not allowed to post anything... because the NSF runs the webpage... and, right, they're shut down...

Posted by beth at October 15, 2013 6:16 PM

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