A Letter from Antarctica, The Coldest Place Screwed Up By The Shutdown
One of the most dramatic, if remote, effects of the government shutdown has been the scaling back of scientific research in Antarctica. All U.S. facilities on Antarctica have been put into "caretaker" status, with minimal staff and research activities suspended. Many have noted the huge blow to science this represents. Less visible are the hundreds of support staff who spend six month shifts as contractors in Antarctica, working as cooks, mechanics, janitors, administrators, etc., who have had their lives turned upside down. We asked one worker at McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. station in Antarctica, how things are going, and she sent us this email:
Right now, the entire United States Antarctic Program has slowed to a crawl. The U.S. government shutdown has forced us into “caretaker status... staffed at a minimal level to ensure human safety and preserve government property...” Most, if not all, science has been suspended could possibly be lost for the entire season. We have nothing to support. Most of our contracts are being cancelled. Some of us are already here; some of us were on our deployment trip from the states when this happened. For some of us, the strange shift this year will be not packing to make the trip south.
The mood has calmed, but is pretty grim as some people wait to leave, and today’s flights out were cancelled because of stormy weather. Work centers are deciding how to adapt to this sudden change of plans. Partners are deciding whether to leave together, or have one of them keep working. Friends are helping each other find places to live back in the states, other seasonal work to apply for, or are just helping each other deal with the stress of it all.
We remember our excitement the first time we ever got here and feel bad for the new faces who are being turned away after only a week of experiencing this unique place. It’s one of those rare moments when we are not complaining about our employers’ seasonal changes or budget cuts, or whatever else might not satisfy all one thousand town members at any given time. We actually have empathy for our employers and can feel their confusion and disappointment through all the hard decisions being made. Our own confusion and disappointment has barely begun to sink in yet. Of the many, many contingencies we plan for when working out in the middle of nowhere, this is not one of them.
Shifting one’s life every six months is a unique way of living. As participants of the USAP who deploy to McMurdo Station, Antarctica for the major work season, we know how to make these intense shifts. We come from our homes, our families’ homes, other seasonal work, and our travels to settle into an isolated environment at the bottom of the world for five, seven, or twelve months. We have stored our belongings, once again, in boxes. We have quit jobs, given up apartments, and found renters for our homes. We have given our pets to trusty caretakers and promised to keep in touch with those people we love and will miss. We have packed all the gear and some creature comforts we need to live for months at the bottom of the world. We have blocked out this chunk of time to shift our lives and work to support science.
We make it work down here. We are a town, a system, a community. We return to our jobs every year because we have learned a bizarre new skill set, solved some of those little problems last year, and want to continue making improvements to this place. We take antiquated or temporary infrastructure and we make it work to support some of the most modern scientific research in the coldest, driest, and windiest place on earth. We squeeze our tasking into every available moment of daylight and reasonable weather. We get just a small glimpse of the research that we support, but we understand the importance and variety of reasons for why we are here. Millions of dollars and months of planning happen before we even set foot on “the Ice,” and most of us are here to just help complete the end phase of the yearly mission. We know this place is bigger than just our individual jobs.
We are used to weather delays, changes in management, logistical nightmares, shortages of labor and supplies, and yearly internal budget battles. We all want more support to do our jobs better, but we make it work anyways. There is a new McMurdo Master Plan to update the facilities, decrease the overall program footprint, and modernize logistics, but this plan seems more like a dream for the next generation. The USAP should be the model of efficiency in a remote place like Antarctica, but without a huge influx of taxpayer dollars we will continue on with leaky forklifts, un-insulated warehouses, a DOS computer program to track our supplies, and pagers. We still use pagers.
We make a literal leap over a gigantic, icy threshold to get here. It takes a lot for that to happen and it is really hard to reverse that course, both physically and mentally. Some of us come here for a season, some for ten, some for twenty. Like anyone else affected by the shutdown, we want our jobs back because we believe in them, and we’re worth more than something one arbitrarily just shuts down in a day. We are proud to support science in Antarctica and we want to work.