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Science 19 August 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6045 p. 927 DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6045.927
News & Analysis
U.S. Icebreaking Woes Threaten McMurdo Resupply, Research Plans
1. Jeffrey Mervis
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Scientists sampled sea ice in the Bay of Whales last January as the Swedish icebreaker Oden cleared a path into McMurdo Station.
CREDIT: BJÖRN ERIKSSON
Swedish politics has thrown a monkey wrench into Antarctic research by scientists from around the world—and exposed the precarious state of the U.S. icebreaking fleet.
Last month, the Swedish government abruptly ended an ongoing agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation that allowed NSF to lease Oden, the pride of the Swedish icebreaking fleet and also the world's most capable polar-class research vessel. NSF has used the ship each winter since 2006–07 to clear a path through the sea ice to resupply McMurdo Station, the largest scientific outpost in Antarctica and the hub for U.S. activities on the continent. A trailing oil tanker delivers some 5 million gallons of fuel to run the station and to operate a fleet of planes that ferry scientists to the South Pole, the Dry Valleys, and other scientific locales.
NSF spent $10 million last year to rent Oden, which also provides scientists access to hard-to-reach portions of the Southern Ocean, because the U.S. Coast Guard's three polar-class icebreakers can't do the job. One is being decommissioned, a second is in dry-dock for extensive repairs, and the third, the U.S.S. Healy, is scheduled to do its first-ever winter Arctic cruise and wasn't designed to meet the challenge of breaking through the channel to McMurdo. Without next winter's delivery of oil and other supplies, McMurdo and the pole's Amundsen-Scott station would have to be put into caretaker status until the 2012–13 season and most research dependent on that logistical support canceled.
“Unless we can find and engage a suitable replacement [icebreaker] by mid-August, we will have to implement contingency plans that would curtail operations in the near term,” Karl Erb, head of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, wrote in a 28 July letter to the community. Erb says that it might be possible to make the available fuel supply last until January 2013, “but only by significantly reducing our on-ice tempo of operations.”
The Swedish government decided that the Oden needed to stay at home this coming winter after two harsh winters disrupted shipping lanes in the region. “With Oden in the Baltic Sea, it is likely that these delays could have been avoided,” Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt wrote in a 5 July letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Word that such a step was being contemplated triggered a furious campaign this spring by Swedish scientists and their colleagues around the world. In addition to buttonholing government officials, they even pressed their case with Sweden's royal family. Speaking at a recent meeting in Stockholm of 28 countries that operate Antarctic research programs, Swedish oceanographer Martin Jakobsson of Stockholm University turned to Crown Princess Victoria, an avowed advocate of polar science, and exclaimed, “and what a shame Oden won't be able to go south.”
Their efforts were no match, however, for the commercial interests that had complained about the ship's unavailability. “I don't think the government even looked at the ramifications for the science,” Jakobsson says. “The research is getting better and better, and now they are pulling out the carpet from under us.” Bildt's letter says the government “carefully considered requests to make Oden available in Antarctica during part of the austral summer” before deciding that “it is not considered a viable option.”
The news is a heavy blow to Anna Wåhlin, an oceanographer at the University of Gothenburg. During two previous trips on Oden, Wåhlin deployed battery-operated instruments that measure deep-water circulation patterns on the floor of the Amundsen Sea and beneath the Ross Sea shelf. This December she had planned to return and collect the first round of data shedding light on the rapid melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a phenomenon that is raising global sea levels. “The batteries only last 2 years, and if we don't get there on time, the data will be lost,” she says.
This spring Wåhlin's university hosted two dozen oceanographers from around the world to discuss the fruits of a collaboration made possible by NSF's use of Oden and to plan new research projects. With the ship's possible redeployment in the wind, the meeting was dominated by talk of “what would happen if Oden couldn't go south next winter,” according to the meeting's organizer, Robin Muench, a senior scientist at Earth and Space Research in Seattle, Washington.
But oceanographers are a resilient lot, Muench says. Having learned to cope with unexpected delays from inclement weather, logistical snafus, or mechanical breakdowns, they have already begun to draw up contingency plans. Wåhlin is hoping to hitch a ride on Araon, a new South Korean icebreaker. Muench says he's going to check out the cruises already scheduled on the Nathaniel B. Palmer, NSF's ice-strengthened research vessel.
In the meantime, NSF is trying to solve the resupply problem. Erb says he has begun discussions with the owners of two foreign icebreakers. “Both options seem viable,” he told Science last week. “I hope to be able to tell the community in a couple of weeks that we have a resupply ship lined up … and that life is good.”
However, neither vessel would have the capacity to support research. “And that's a big loss,” Erb admits. “The Oden was getting into areas where nobody had worked before, and new discoveries were beginning to emerge.”
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