Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

US Shutdown Freezes Antarctic Research

By Stephen Luntz

The US government’s shutdown has had drastic effects on Antarctic research, including collaborations with Australian and New Zealand teams. The timing of the shutdown at the start of the summer research period meant that many projects could not be restarted even after funding resumed.

The failure of the US houses of congress to agree on a budget led to the suspension of funds not only to civil servants but also to many scientific projects. The National Science Foundation recalled scientists from Antarctica, and the McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott and Palmer bases were placed in caretaker status with only essential maintenance crews remaining.

Many Southern Hemisphere scientists expressed their distress. “I am an Antarctic researcher working at UNSW with a project involving US colleagues on the high Antarctic plateau (South Pole, Ridge A – astronomy projects). This close-down is a disaster for our project, not just for this year, but it would mean the project could not go ahead next year either as necessary precursor logistics need to be laid out in place,” said Prof Michael Burton of the University of NSW School of Physics.

Em/Prof Peter Barrett of Victoria University described the loss of programs as “unprecedented and tragic”. Barrett noted: “Almost all Antarctic research today is collaborative, so most national programs will feel some consequences. 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.”

However, Antarctica New Zealand was more positive, releasing a statement that it “is able to readily adapt New Zealand’s Antarctic Program 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.”

New Zealand’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, was in Antarctica in early October and offered assistance to American operations there during the crisis.