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A Green Light for Antarctic Fieldwork

17 October 2013 2:30 pm
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Sean Bonnette/United States Antarctic Program

Reprieve. The Laurence M. Gould (right) won’t have to take Antarctic researchers back home after all now that the U.S. government shutdown is over.

For Jamie Collins, the end of the U.S. government shutdown means a chance to begin tracking breeding penguins. The oceanography graduate student is one of dozens of scientists at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica who were buoyed by this morning’s announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that it is “restor[ing] the planned 2013-14 austral summer U. S. Antarctic Program (USAP) activities to the maximum extent possible.”

“They told us this morning they are re-starting the season,” Collins writes to ScienceInsider. “So everyone is running around setting up their labs. We're all very excited about the re-opening, but we feel like we've been at the end of a very long yo-yo down here.” (See his blog for more impressions.)

Collins is part of an NSF-funded team conducting a long-running ecological experiment to measure the impact of sea ice fluctuations on polar biota. But he has spent the past week cooped up on the U.S. research icebreaker Laurence M. Gould with crates of lab equipment, as well as the personal possessions needed for a 5-month stay at the station on the western Antarctic Peninsula. An NSF decision last week to put all three U.S stations into “caretaker” status prevented any of the scientists from settling into their expected routines. And Collins had been told as recently as Tuesday that he and about 40 other scientists would be returning on the Gould to Punta Arenas in Chile on Friday.

Instead, Collins will soon be visiting penguin colonies on offshore islands, monitoring their return from the open ocean to mate and produce offspring. But another part of his scheduled activities—a 5-week cruise aboard the Gould this winter to collect oceanographic data—is still in limbo. “No one knows what's happening to the cruises that have been scheduled for January 1 and onwards,” he says. “But at least field work season here is on.”

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