Shutdown's Reach Extends To South Pole

Research season was just getting started when the government shutdown put McMurdo Station into "caretaker" mode, halting data collection. Host Scott Simon speaks to Gretchen Hofmann, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, about the government shutdown's impact on research in Antarctica.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. government shutdown is reaching all the way to the poles of the Earth. The research season in Antarctica runs during the warmer months there in the southern hemisphere, roughly from October to February, and that means scientists were just getting started when they had to shut down. Gretchen Hofmann is a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. She's the lead researcher on a project at the McMurdo Station in the Antarctic. She joins us from her office in Santa Barbara. Thanks very much for being with us.

GRETCHEN HOFMANN: You bet, Scott. Happy to be here, although I wish it was under a little bit of different circumstance.

SIMON: Well, tell us what happened.

HOFMANN: Well, I guess the story starts where, as researchers, we fly down to the Antarctic via help from the United States' Air Force leaving from Christchurch, New Zealand. And we fly on these large planes. We land on this sea ice. And about a week ago, I deployed one of the researchers in our program, Dr. Amanda Kelly. She flew from Christchurch, New Zealand and landed on the sea ice to find out in fact McMurdo Station, our U.S. research station, had gone into caretaker mode. She's currently there in the Antarctic right now. I just learned that she's done bag drag, which is where you take your gear to the airplane, and she's flying out. So, sort of Christmas has been cancelled as far as science is concerned in the Antarctic.

SIMON: And what are the implications of this?

HOFMANN: Well, Scott, I guess I can say that as a senior scientist now - I'm tenured and I run my own lab - we stand to lose data as a community that runs the gamut from drilling through the Western Antarctic ice sheet to understanding penguin biology and long-term data sets. But one of the casualties, one of the things that we stand to lose right now is important productivity for junior scientists, people who are just starting their careers.

SIMON: What about some of the specific projects that might be facing peril at the moment?

HOFMANN: I think one of the examples I can think of is someone at the University of Alabama. Her name is Samantha Hansen. I know this really well 'cause last season I was there. Samantha - Sam - and I were roommates in our science dorm. Sam's a geologist and she deployed these very interesting, complex remote sensing instruments out in the Antarctic mountains. She's interested in studying the processes that, you know, sort of essentially shape our planet and make mountains. And Sam's instruments right now have data that's really important to her, important to the science world. And if we can't go get them, the data will be lost, the instruments could be buried in snow and it'll be a complete loss for this charismatic young scientist.

SIMON: And don't U.S. research teams work in concert with a lot of teams from other places around the world too?

HOFMANN: Absolutely. You're correct. This is also a devastating blow for Antarctic research programs, particularly in New Zealand. Antarctica, New Zealand has their base at Scott Base, which is literally a beautiful walk away from McMurdo Station. We fly logistics for them. We transport their personnel. We also have strong ties with the Italian group. And, if I might add, one of the key roles that the United States plays down there, through our resources and the presence of our military, is a very strong role in search and rescue activities. And presently, we are sort of dropping the ball from our global Antarctic research community because we are less able to respond to emergencies that come up down there. So, it's really an unfortunate situation.

SIMON: Gretchen Hofmann, who's a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara and lead researcher on a project at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Thanks very much for being with us.

HOFMANN: Thank you, Scott. It's been my pleasure.

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