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