US suspends Antarctic research programme – experts respond

Antarctica On IceAntarctic research programmes are in limbo as funding repercussions from the United States federal shutdown reach the southernmost continent.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced yesterday that it will recall scientists and staff from Antarctica due to funding lapses resulting from the government shutdown.

In a move that could spell the end of this year’s Antarctic field season for American researchers, US Antarctic research stations McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott and Palmer will be placed into ‘caretaker status’, with all but essential maintenance crew to be evacuated and research and field activities suspended.

The NSF has warned that even if funding resumes, some activities cannot be restarted once evacuation is complete and seasonal windows for research and operations have passed.

UPDATED A spokesperson for Antarctica New Zealand has issued a statement relating to the current New Zealand Antarctic Programme and the US shutdown.

The Science Media Centre has rounded up the following reaction from Antarctic experts. Any further comments will be posted here as they are received.

UPDATED Craig Cary, Professor  of Environmental Biotechnology, University of Waikato and Director of The International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, is currently travelling in the US. He comments:

“I have been over here working with several colleagues funded through the US Antarctic program – as you can imagine most are in disbelief.  The LTER program has been operating for almost 20 years and has – without question – the longest record on yearly measurements made at any scale – on the continent.  This data set – especially in light of climate change – is priceless.  Like the carbon dioxide data collected by Charles Keeling in Hawaii that provide the first clear evidence of increased CO2 in our atmosphere – the LTER data will be essential to helping understand how the continent will respond to a warming planet.  Our program has been working to develop sensitive tools with which to monitor and predict how change in the Ross Sea will effect the terrestrial biology.  Our close collaboration with our US colleagues is critical to a large component of our program.  Any change in their ability to do science on the ice will directly effect us.”

Peter Barrett, Emeritus Professor, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington comments:

“The US is now being forced to plan to abandon this year’s Antarctic research program on account of the recent funding impasse in Congress. The loss of this season’s programs, some planned over many years, would be unprecedented and tragic for both the Antarctic community and our understanding of the Antarctic region and its changing environment.

“Those of us who have worked in the Antarctic for many years feel deeply for our American colleagues, researchers, students and support staff, whose lives and careers would either be put on hold or derailed by this event. In addition there’s the loss of data – ground truth – that only field work can provide.

“Almost all Antarctic research today is collaborative, so most national programmes will feel some consequences, but especially those with traditional close links with the US, such as our own.

“The Antarctic region may be out of sight for most, but it’s a key part of the global climate system. We can only hope that the people and resources the US has wisely committed to its understanding are restored as soon as possible.”

Dr Charles Lee, Research Fellow, Associate Director – International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, University of Waikato comments:

“The International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research (ICTAR) at the University of Waikato currently hosts three Antarctic research projects, facilitated by Antarctica New Zealand. Although there is currently no immediate logistical impact on ICTAR’s field expeditions, the disruption of the United States Antarctic Program will have significant and long-lasting impacts on our research. This is due to our close and extensive collaborations with American researchers, including analysis of our samples at the McMurdo Station and deployment of shared instrumentation.

“In the medium term, the disruptions will have knock-on effects on future Antarctic seasons, particularly special expeditions to areas beyond the McMurdo Dry Valleys (e.g., Central Transantarctic Mountains) that require multi-year planning and scientific support. These developments highlight the need for politically independent funding sources for scientific research and will hopefully raise the public awareness of such needs.”

A Spokesperson for Antarctica New Zealand provided the following points relating to the current New Zealand Antarctic Programme and the US shutdown.

  • Antarctica New Zealand is following the situation in the US and keeping in close contact with our partners at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and their McMurdo Station.
  • Antarctica New Zealand anticipates that the US Government partial shutdown will have minimal impact on the New Zealand Antarctic Programme
  • Antarctica New Zealand is able to readily adapt New Zealand’s Antarctic Programme to changing circumstances due to the scale of our operation
  • Antarctica New Zealand is developing contingency plans to minimise any impacts on New Zealand’s activities in Antarctica this season.
  • The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Antarctica New Zealand’s Board Chair, who are currently in Antarctica, have offered New Zealand’s support to the US Antarctic Program
  • Antarctica New Zealand is conscious of the operational challenges the US Antarctic Program is facing at this time and we remain committed to our strong partnership with them.
  • We have been assured by our US partners of the continued priority that they place on their cooperative commitments with us.

In addition:

  • Antarctica New Zealand has been advised that the Antarctic air link will continue as planned for the 2013/14 season 
  • Antarctica New Zealand’s Scott Base is able to function normally even if the US McMurdo Station moves to caretaker status
  • New Zealand’s Antarctic Programme will continue as planned but there may be some instances where individual events may be modified if there is a component of scientific or logistical collaboration with the US
  • At this time, New Zealand has not been asked to undertake any monitoring or operational activity on behalf of the US