Shutdown Forces Antarctic Research Into 'Caretaker Status'
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is the time of year when scientists make the long trek down to the bottom of the world to study Antarctica. They have just a few months to do their work before the icy continent sinks into its dark, frigid winter. These researchers are used to dealing with all kinds of hardships - extreme cold, fuel shortages - but this year they've been hit by something unprecedented.
The U.S. Antarctic Program says it is stopping most research activities because of the partial government shutdown. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us what's going on. Good morning.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, how is the shutdown affecting this remote place?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, as you can imagine, the fact that it's so remote means that it's very difficult to get there and move scientific equipment around. So all the logistics like housing and transportation for the scientists are handled by the U.S. Antarctic Program. It runs three research stations and things like ships. That whole program is paid for by the National Science Foundation, which is shut down. So there's a funding crunch.
The government contractor for logistics in Antarctica is Lockheed Martin and Lockheed Martin's support program there is going to run out of money soon, around October 14th. Yesterday, the National Science Foundation announced that they were putting research on hold, pulling people out of Antarctica and going into what's called caretaker status.
MONTAGNE: Well, I want to ask you about caretaker status. I mean, I'm not quite sure what that means. But pulling people out? That sounds really hard.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So caretaker status, that would mean just skeleton crews at the research stations, the bare minimum to keep things going. Everybody else comes back home. And that's a big deal because this is the time of year when activity normally is ramping up.
I mean, there's advanced teams that have been going to McMurdo Research Station since August getting everything ready for the scientists to arrive. And the research season only runs from October to February. That's basically the Antarctic summer. There are some things that have to get done. For example, there are people who have overwintered at the South Pole. That station needs to be visited and supplied with things like fuel. But other than that, it's not clear what, if anything, will happen down there this year.
MONTAGNE: So how have the scientists been reacting?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The ones I talk to are floored. I mean, they're stunned. One person who's worked in Antarctica for 30 years said that he's never seen anything like this and that it looked really bad. The National Science Foundation says that if the shutdown ends and it gets more funding, it will try to resume research. But doing work in Antarctica usually takes a ton of logistics and planning.
I mean, you're moving around airplanes and helicopters and icebreakers. Scientists say once you turn all that off, you can't just flip a switch and bring it all back online.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some projects probably just won't be able to be restarted. Researchers worry that if they miss their narrow window to go they're basically going to miss their one chance to see what's happening in Antarctica this year.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly give us some idea of what kind of research we are talking about here that might be missed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, all kinds of things. I mean, they have telescopes down there for astrophysics. They're studying lakes under the ice sheets, looking for signs of life. They're tracking the effects of climate change. Other countries have programs down there too, like the United Kingdom and Russia, but scientists say the U.S. has the best and biggest Antarctic program in the world. And now it's on hold.
MONTAGNE: OK. So the shutdown hits the Antarctic. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks very much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
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