(I am in no way an official member of any reigning body having anything to do with the USAP–nor am I the scientist many referring links state me to be. I am one of the science support contractors–and in that respect I ask the media to not quote from this blog representing me as one. What we know is nothing at this point. And it is a nothing that is changing constantly.)
The impact of the US government shutdown is farther reaching than the media has explained or understood, than most of you can fathom. I haven’t even got the big picture.
The US Antarctic Program is shutting down for the year.
It does not matter that the government may be back up and running in a few weeks. If that happens all the government workers who have been furloughed back stateside will have to get up off their couches and their gardening kneepads to drive back to work, with back pay.
Yes, that sucks. Many people do live pay cheque to pay cheque, even when they work for the US government.
We are going to “caretaker status”. What does that mean? We do not entirely know. But we know the losses are huge. In the media they are talking about the international bevy of scientists who will not be able to do science this year at any of our three stations: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer. Much of this science has been decades of research and scientific continuity leading to incredible breakthroughs in understanding our world and the cosmos and our role in it. Science is closed for the season. For the year. There will be no science. A few rare experiments may continue simply because, like IceCube at the South Pole, it is necessary that the building and the instruments it contains be maintained, but even this is unsure. The building cannot go cold, to do so would destroy not just the year’s data, but the entire multimillion dollar system.
For those of us who support that science, well….
If science goes away, what do we support?
We support the survival of the facilities and the safety of those of us who will remain as caretakers. Nothing more than that.
That doesn’t take many people. We have almost 500 people here at McMurdo Station right this minute. That’s about 375 too many, or so the rumours go. I may be one of the many, I may be one of the few. We do not know yet who will go or who will stay.
What remains for us to do is to shut down the station as if we were heading into a Winter in November, not March. We will continue to support South Pole Station, not just to get those poor benighted winterovers of 2013 out of there–it has been a hard season (I understate) but that is not my topic to pursue; it’s not my story to tell–but to make sure that all the food and fuel they need to survive next winter (Feb-Nov 2014) is provided them. That takes an entire South Pole Summer (Nov-Feb) to achieve. South Pole station cannot go cold, cold there would be irreversible. But their summer can be shut down to Winter staffing levels (50ish vs summer’s 150ish).
Supporting South Pole resupply requires aircraft operations and the South Pole Traverse. That will keep some people employed at McMurdo and Pole.
However, the rest of us? Not so very necessary. We will shut station down à la winter, with buildings that were just recently warmed up and brought online after last Winter, shut back down again. That’ll use a few folks for a little bit. And those of us needed to support that effort will stick around too.
The rest of us, well, we are being sent home. How that will happen? When that will happen? Who that will happen to? Unknown. Getting us down here is a fucking expensive, nightmare huge, epic logistics cluster. For the most part the program gets it right, with a few hiccoughs there and there, but a bravura performance nonetheless. Getting us out of here like this? On short notice? Finding hotel rooms in Christchurch at the last minute? Changing plane tickets? Figuring out how to fund our redeployment (it all costs money we no longer have)? Deciding who is vital who is not and when? That is so enormous it stresses me out just to try and imagine it. My mind boggles and steams with the effort.
Will we be eligible for unemployment? Is unemployment being funded? Will we be called back? Will we have jobs next year?
There are so many questions. The entire station, after our All Hands meeting with the managers telling us what they knew about what this all means, was quiet. Respectful questions, answers provided as best they could. None of us flung blame at the messengers who are in just as deep shit as we are. This is hard on them too, and they were struggling with their own anger and grief, they love this place just as much of the rest of us. Then the break up of the meeting. The station subdued, quiet. Clusters of quiet people looking devastated. It is not even rumour, it is fact, and we are so far past being spun up about this we are only just formulating our own questions of what if and how and really? Really? Really?!? There is so much to think about that the messengers at this meeting have not even been able to wrap their minds around everything that needs doing, and many questions brought them up short of knowledge and answers, and opened up new avenues they must research and figure out and decide on. They are more than reluctant and unhappy to have so many of our heads on the chopping block.
We are all sad. Scared. For many of us losing this job, this season, will decimate us financially. Some of us have no place to live back home because we have sublet our apartments, rented out our houses, spent good money getting ready for this season of employment. Some of us live season to season on our pay cheques. We will not be invited back to work in 2013, or even before August-September of 2014. Some of us may not even be in a position to come back next year. Once we start this process of drawing down to caretaker status we cannot back out of it and restart the season.
Even if the Republicans have revelations about their utter stupidity and fuckwittedness and get back to fucking work within a week, we won’t. We don’t get backpay. We won’t get called back to restart the season. Our raison d’être is science. Science is canceled. Science is seasonal. Krill don’t happen year round, nor do penguins and seals, or algae. Or fish or whales or albatrosses or access to glacier melt ponds or volcanoes. If it doesn’t happen now, it doesn’t happen this year.
Mostly we are sad. Frustrated. Angry at our government and ashamed to be Americans.
We are part of an internationally codependent Antarctic system. What happens in the US, and therefore to us, could fuck science in Antarctica for so many stations and countries around the continent. McMurdo Station is a logistics hub for Australian, Russian, French, Italian, and New Zealand stations (and often others). When the French helicopter went down a few years ago? We sent one of our LC-130s to look. When other stations have a medevac, or a fire, or an emergency, we are often mustered to help them with our Air National Guard aircraft and crews. We get them from NZ to their stations for the summer. I cannot count how many times a 25+ strong crew of Russian or Italian or French or Australian station crew members have stayed with us for many days while they awaited the right weather window to fly to their own stations, delayed and housed and fed here. We work together. We are one big community when things go wrong here. And we are shutting down for the season.
So, I do not know what my future is. Few of us do.
But I do know one thing for sure: Who to blame.
Fuck the fucking Republicans for getting us into this mess with their intransigent selfish right wing ideological idiocy.
Fuck them for fucking up one of the most amazing things in the world, the US Antarctic Program.