Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

NZ scientists take over Antarctic research

McMurdo Station. File photo / APN
McMurdo Station. File photo / APN

New Zealand scientists will take over research operations in Antarctica as the United States withdraws its teams during the government shut-down.

Operations at McMurdo base are being reduced to caretaker status, with only essential staff remaining, as President Barack Obama's stalemate with Republicans continues into its tenth day.

The partial closure of the US base could see many projects stalled until next year, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said.

"The science programmes and the research work, which is of course where we see a lot of collaboration with the US, obviously has been suspended at this moment, and it's highly questionable whether they can restart it in the context of the current year,'' he said today. "So a lot of the really good work we do in collaboration with the US will be paused for some time.''

He said the New Zealand teams at neighbouring Scott base were still ``digesting what this means'' to them, but said he was concerned about long-term projects being affected.

"We're particularly concerned that programmes that go back some years, where we've been keeping data to compare year-on-year, should be able to be protected,'' he said. "And the indication we've had are that those sorts of things will be ok.

"We've made the offer to the US system that whatever we can do to help them, we will do.

"Even during the really difficult times of the relationship with the US, it's worth just understanding that the cooperation in Antarctica between New Zealand and the United States never faltered, so it's a very tight partnership and calls for us to make this offer at a time like this.''

The central services of the McMurdo base will be kept running during the shut-down, including logistical connections and services which are protecting US assets, Mr McCully said.

There had been some concern earlier that flights from Christchurch may also be suspended during the shutdown.

The US is responsible for running three American bases on the continent.

US flights to the Antarctic runways will continue, but Mr McCully was unsure whether the number of flights would be reduced.

However, New Zealand's capacity to fly to the continent looks set to continue as normal, he said.

Mr McCully said he was not worried about New Zealand research being negatively impacted by the shutdown.

"I think that where we can we'll take up some of the slack,'' he said, adding that recent announcements indicated Kiwi research was growing and would continue to expand.

"It's really quite world leading in terms of climate change research and there's every indication that it's going to keep on growing as part of the New Zealand effort.''

He said while there were concerns about what impact the shut-down may have it was also an opportunity for New Zealand scientists to shine.

''[T]he science and research work is the area where the suspensions are going to have the greatest impact, we're looking at what we can do to maintain that,'' he said.

"Some of the areas where there are partnerships may call for us to step up and do a little more, that's one of the obvious consequences.''

McCully said he had been in discussions with the US director of operations at McMurdo about what could be done ``in a complex set of circumstances''.

"We wanted to help with that but we also wanted to protect the work that's given us both so much value down there,'' he said.

Mr McCully said he believed the mood at the US base after the news broke was ``very sombre''.

"Obviously a lot of people are very disappointed that the work they've put a lot of work into has been suspended for some time,'' he said.

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