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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It may be autumn in our part of the world but it's springtime in Antarctica. And that means good conditions for the next few months for scientists who study that continent.

But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, even Antarctica isn't far away enough to avoid getting caught up in the government shutdown.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Winter in Antarctica is dark and cold. Only small numbers of people stay at the three U.S. research stations. Things start to change in August. Advance teams arrive to get ready for the scientists. They set up equipment, dormitories, landing strips for airplanes. It's a huge undertaking. And the researchers usually start showing up right about now.

PETER DORAN: Just a week ago, even though we knew about the government shutdown and everything, we weren't really thinking it would impact us in our field season. And, you know, what a difference a week makes. Now it all seems very uncertain.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Peter Doran is scheduled to make the long trek down there soon. He's a professor of earth sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

DORAN: The U.S. has the most impressive and largest Antarctic program in the world. I mean, we can do things that other countries can't do because of the great logistics support that we've had for years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Those logistics are handled by the government's contractor, Lockheed Martin. And researchers are now hearing that its Antarctic support funding will run out in about a week. A decision about what will happen is expected very soon. The fear is that the entire research season will effectively be canceled. Instead of more people going out, almost everyone will get called back home. Doran says the thought of all the science that wouldn't get done is depressing.

DORAN: And the waste of money is just heartbreaking, you know? I mean to all the equipment that's been shipped down already for this field season, all the people having to reverse all that for nothing? It really kind of makes me ill.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This isn't the first time Antarctic researchers have faced a government shutdown. John Priscu says, in the past, they haven't caused problems, but this one could be different. Priscu is a Montana State University biologist who's been to Antarctica about 30 times. He thinks if a decision is made to pull out, it will be hard to reverse.

JOHN PRISCU: In Antarctica, the planning is so intense. I mean, we're scheduling Department of Defense aircraft and, you know, icebreakers. And the planning goes on years ahead. I don't think you can just throw a switch and say, OK, we're better now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He has a team that was supposed to leave in about a week to take measurements for a long-term study of how a large valley is responding to climate change.

PRISCU: That project has been going for 21 years now. If we have a void in that project, we will have a loss in long-term data integrity. And any prediction we make on climate-based ecosystem change would be equivocal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another project that might take a hit is Operation IceBridge. Robin Bell is a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

ROBIN BELL: IceBridge is this state-of-the-art imaging machine where we can actually get up close and personal to how the ice sheets are changing by flying over them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says researchers could miss some important changes in the ice sheets if the IceBridge airplane can't take advantage of its narrow flight window. And her biggest nightmare?

BELL: My fear is that the government will stay closed so long that all weather windows will close and that the Antarctic science wouldn't happen this year.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin referred NPR to its funding agency, the National Science Foundation. The NSF is shut down. But last week, its Antarctic program posted a statement, saying it would continue to house, feed and care for all of its personnel on the continent without exception. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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