As the federal shutdown enters its second week, many scientists worry that the United States program in Antarctica will be a casualty of political wars in Washington.
Researchers only have a short window of good weather between now and early February to complete projects from uncovering new life forms under the ice and observing outer space to understanding how climate change is altering Antarctic glaciers.
The National Science Foundation, which operates three American bases in Antarctica, has been brought to a standstill. Lockheed Martin, which provides support and logistics for the bases, has told researchers via e-mail that it is running out of money and will decide this week whether it will close all the bases for the research season, according to Nature News.
NSF officials in Washington were unavailable and Lockheed Martin spokespeople in Bethesda, Md., and Denver refused to comment. But the effects are already being felt at the South Pole.
"It's still pretty confusing," Lane Patterson, a cook at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station told Discovery News by telephone. "We've been told to hang tight. The South Pole is a unique place. It's hard to take a furlough. There's no break from the cold."
A skeleton crew of 44 people have been at the South Pole since early February during the annual "winter-over." A relief flight with fresh food, supplies and new personnel is supposed to land Nov. 1, but it's not clear who will be flying it or when it will arrive. The Royal New Zealand Air Force shuttled 94 U.S. personnel from a staging area at Christchurch to the U.S. main base at McMurdo Station earlier this week, according to spokesman Geoff Davies. But only the United States has the capability to operate special ski-equipped Lockheed C-130 aircraft that can make the two and a half hour trip from McMurdo to the South Pole.
Cold temperatures reaching minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit can gum up aircraft hydraulic fluids and make landing and take-offs extremely difficult. Those winterized flights are operated by members of the 105th Air Wing of the New York Air National Guard, who are currently being furloughed.
Even if the spigot of money were to be turned back on in a few days, many researchers would likely unable to continue their work in Antarctica. That's because of the planning and logistics time that has already been lost in trying to maintain a supply chain that stretches across the globe.
"Considerable money, time and effort has been invested in my NASA and Antarctic projects that are scheduled to deploy shortly," said John Priscu, professor of environmental science at Montana State University who studies rare forms of Antarctica microbial life. "The shutdown would waste all resources invested thus far in making the season happen."
Priscu is also worried about losing long-term records that he has maintained about the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. "This would make prediction of climate-based ecosystem change equivocal," he said via e-mail.