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United States suspends Antarctic research season

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is recalling staff and scientists from Antarctica due to the ongoing US government shutdown. Nearly all science at the three US bases will grind to a halt.

The agency’s decision, posted today, could spell the end of this year’s Antarctic field season at McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott and Palmer stations, depending on the duration of the shutdown, which began on 1 October and shows no signs of ending.

The US base at the South Pole, Amundsen-Scott, will be put in 'caretaker status'.

The US base at the South Pole, Amundsen-Scott, will be put in ‘caretaker status’.

Sven Lidstrom, National Science Foundation

The NSF said it would work to restore the research season “to the maximum extent possible” once funding is restored. The agency said, however, that some activities could not be restarted once the evacuation was complete and the seasonal windows for research and operations had passed.

Lockheed Martin, the contractor that runs the US bases for the NSF, had already been preparing to put the facilities in ‘caretaker status’. The company received its last funding from the NSF on 30 September, according to internal e-mails obtained by Nature. In its statement, the NSF said Lockheed had enough money on hand to ensure operations through 14 October.

A skeleton crew will remain to properly maintain each of the three bases, as is normally the practice during the Antarctic off-season, from March to September. During a normal year, roughly 700 scientists head south each year to study Antarctica’s ice, ecosystems and atmosphere from October to February.

Scientists are frustrated that long-term studies will be interrupted. “If we lose a year of observations, they are gone forever,” says Hugh Ducklow, a biological oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

Ducklow is working on a 20-year-old project to monitor the ecosystem near Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The work includes an annual census of penguin populations, which have shifted significantly in recent years as the peninsula has warmed. “A number of the remaining colonies of Adélie penguins in our study are so low now that they could go extinct almost any time,” Ducklow says.

The US shutdown could also have repercussions for other nations’ Antarctic research programmes. New Zealand’s Scott Base and the joint French-Italian Concordia Station rely on the US programme for some transportation needs, including helicopter support of field research and access to McMurdo Station’s sea-ice runway, which can handle heavy cargo plane landings. Lisa-Marie Brooks, a spokesperson for Antarctica New Zealand, said in an e-mail that the agency was developing contingency plans to minimize the impact of the US shutdown on its operations but did not offer more details.

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