U.S. Government Shutdown Halts Antarctic Research

800px McMurdo Station

As the shutdown of the U.S. government continues to drag on the consequences for the inability for Congress and the President to come to an agreement on budget issues continues to ripple into more and more programs. Of course, we already knew that the closure of the national park service would impact some of our favorite outdoor places, but now it seems that research stations in the Antarctic are feeling the fiscal crunch as well.

As fall continues on here in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is moving into full effect down south. That includes Antarctica, where the late-October and early-November are the traditional kick off the research season at the bottom of the world. In just a few weeks time I’ll begin coverage of teams heading to the South Pole for what promises to be another busy and interesting season. But for American research teams, it could potentially be a very frustrating one.

The National Science Foundation has announced that unless a budget agreement is reached by October 14, the organization will run out of funds to cover its various projects, including the staffing and maintenance of Antarctic research stations. The NSF has already instructed its support contractors to prepare to move into “caretaker status.” What does that mean exactly? Here’s what the memo says:

“Under caretaker status, the USAP (U.S. Antarctic Program) 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.”

This is obviously bad news for the scientists and researchers who have been planning on going to the Antarctic for months, if not longer. Most will be put on hold come Monday and if the situation isn’t resolved, their research could be delayed for years. As Outside magazine says in their article on the subject, scheduling for these projects is done far in advance and any shift in that schedule could be incredibly disruptive to the work being done.

There are a few more days to get things sorted out, although at this point discussions are not looking promising. There is a major deadline looming at the end of next week however and it is my opinion that some compromise will be reached by then. Both sides seem to be playing chicken at the moment and neither wants to be the one to swerve first. Hopefully they’ll come to their senses soon and things can begin to return to normal. There is still time, even if things look pretty grim right now.

Kraig Becker