Where else does the United States have an in­fra­struc­ture prob­lem? Antarc­tica

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Justin Gil­lis and Jonathan Corum

McMURDO STA­TION, Antarc­tica – The Amer­i­can re­search sta­tion on the edge of this frozen con­ti­nent may look like a min­ing camp in the wilder­ness, but it is ac­tu­ally one of the glo­ries of Amer­i­can science.

At McMurdo Sta­tion, black vol­canic dust boils off un­paved roads, stick­ing to trucks and build­ings. Peo­ple eat canned veg­eta­bles, sleep in win­dow­less rooms and rou­tinely wear 20 pounds of clothes to sur­vive tem­per­a­tures far be­low freez­ing.

From its ori­gin as a col­lec­tion of U.S. Navy huts six decades ago, the sta­tion here has grown into a small town with more than a thou­sand res­i­dents dur­ing peak months.

It has long been the main hub for the most am­bi­tious Antarc­tic re­search pro­gram run by any na­tion. Hun­dreds of sci­en­tists cy­cle through ev­ery year to study the per­ils of col­laps­ing ice caps, the mat­ing habits of pen­guins, the deep his­tory of the Earth and the great mys­ter­ies of the cos­mos.

Now, in an era when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to slash fed­eral spend­ing, the fate of Antarc­tic re­search is an open ques­tion.

The cost of keep­ing the Amer­i­can lead in Antarc­tica may be high. The Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion, which runs the re­search pro­grams in Antarc­tica and Green­land, has de­cided that the ag­ing, in­ef­fi­cient build­ings at McMurdo must be re­placed. It has de­vised a plan with no of­fi­cial price tag yet, but it is al­most cer­tain to cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

In ad­di­tion, the ships that de­liver sup­plies ev­ery year must be led by a boat ca­pa­ble of break­ing heavy sea ice. The only one in the United States’ fleet big enough to do the job, the Coast Guard’s Po­lar Star, is a de­crepit 40-year-old ves­sel that mem­bers of the crew some­times call “a rust bucket.”

Rus­sia, by com­par­i­son, will soon have more than 50 ice­break­ers. Sev­eral will be pow­ered by nu­clear re­ac­tors. In Congress, mem­bers of both par­ties have called the sit­u­a­tion a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment and pro­vided funds to be­gin de­sign­ing a new Amer­i­can ice­breaker fleet.

But the ships may cost $1 bil­lion apiece, and the bulk of the money has yet to be al­lo­cated. In the best case, the first new ice­breaker will float out of dry dock six years from now.

In the mean­time, un­planned ship re­pairs could force McMurdo and its sis­ter sta­tion, at the South Pole, to op­er­ate with skele­ton crews for a year or more, shut­ting down most of the sci­en­tific re­search.

“We are liv­ing on bor­rowed time,” Kelly K. Falkner, the di­rec­tor of po­lar pro­grams at the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion, said.

The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion at McMurdo can be seen as an ex­ten­sion of the na­tional in­fra­struc­ture cri­sis that Pres­i­dent Trump ran for of­fice vow­ing to fix, even if the prob­lems are 8,000 miles from the main­land United States.

For the peo­ple who op­er­ate McMurdo Sta­tion, get­ting by on a shoe­string is a point of pride. Trucks and other pieces of heavy equip­ment are patched again and again, and kept run­ning for decades.

“Any­thing we get, we squeeze ev­ery bit of life out of it,” said Paul Shep­pard, a re­tired Air Force colonel who is the deputy head of Antarc­tic lo­gis­tics for the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion. “The tax­pay­ers get a tremen­dous re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

The United States’ own­er­ship of this prime sci­en­tific as­set is, in part, a relic of the Cold War. The ad­ver­sary then was the Soviet Union, and the two na­tions com­peted to project in­flu­ence all over the globe and far into space. That com­pe­ti­tion – which took Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts to the moon in 1969 – was also a big rea­son that Amer­i­can flags were ul­ti­mately hoisted over the best piece of dry land in Antarc­tica, on which McMurdo Sta­tion sits, and over the most sym­bolic spot on the con­ti­nent, the South Pole.

To­day China, more than Rus­sia, is the ris­ing com­pe­ti­tion in Antarc­tica, iden­ti­fy­ing re­search there as a strate­gic na­tional pri­or­ity. China has four per­ma­nent bases, with a fifth planned. The U.S. has three bases and mul­ti­ple field camps, and its over­all pro­gram is still far larger than China’s.

“Over 150 dif­fer­ent re­search projects op­er­ate out of McMurdo Sta­tion ev­ery year, and all of them re­quire a tremen­dous amount of lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, ev­ery­thing from mov­ing heavy cargo to sup­ply­ing food to get­ting peo­ple out to re­mote cor­ners of the con­ti­nent,” said Michael Lu­cibella, editor of the Antarc­tic Sun, the U.S. Antarc­tic Pro­gram’s on­line news­pa­per. “It’s a kind of lo­gis­tics that I’d never seen be­fore.”

From the sta­tion, teams of sci­en­tists can fly to field camps deep in the Antarc­tic in­te­rior, plumb the ocean depths and catch he­li­copters into the nearby McMurdo Dry Val­leys, an ice-free re­gion where hun­dreds of mil­lions of years of the planet’s his­tory are ex­posed in the hill­sides. McMurdo is also the life­line for the U.S. base at the South Pole.

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