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ARLINGTON, Va. - The cumulative effects of at least two years of unusual ice conditions in McMurdo Sound are keeping a fuel tanker from reaching the pier at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) McMurdo Station, where it normally would deliver the fuel to keep the U.S. Antarctic Program operating through the approaching austral winter and into the next research season. As a result, NSF personnel at the station are undertaking an alternative method of transferring several million gallons of fuel from a tanker offshore over the sea ice of McMurdo Sound.
Fuel lines have been rigged across 3.5 miles of sea ice to the tanker MV Richard G Matthiesen, which is operated by the Military Sealift Command. The ship is standing off McMurdo Station while the roughly 6.2 million gallons of fuel is pumped to the station.
Although two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers have cleared a channel through McMurdo Sound to allow the tanker access from the Southern Ocean, the captains of the icebreakers and the Matthiesen determined that too much so-called "brash ice" - accumulated floating ice fragments - coupled with early refreezing, is clogging the channel, making it unsafe to bring the tanker into the pier. The ships represent a lifeline to the station, allowing it to operate through the long austral winter and to gear up for the next research season when spring comes to the Southern Hemisphere.
The USCGC Healy sailed from Seattle on Jan. 9 to assist the icebreaker Polar Sea, which was already in Antarctic waters. Healy is an icebreaker designed to support Polar science, particularly in the Arctic, where it has distinguished itself during several recent and significant science cruises.
The cargo vessel American Tern has already completed its delivery to McMurdo and is en route back to the United States with its cargo of recyclable materials, which will be processed in the United States. The U.S. Antarctic Program recycles roughly 70 percent of its wastes.
Personnel at McMurdo worked with officials at NSF and at Colorado-based Raytheon Polar Services, NSF's Antarctic logistics contractor, to develop the plans to transfer the fuel safely while protecting the environment of the McMurdo Sound. Officials had hoped that a late summer storm would clear away the ice and make it possible to bring the tanker to the pier at McMurdo. Instead, the icebreakers have escorted the Matthiesen as close to McMurdo as they safely can and hoses have been run over the sea ice to pump the fuel into the tanks at the station.
The process of transferring the fuel is expected to take several days.
The transfer operation requires that some personnel who normally would have left the station by the end of February, when it traditionally closes for the winter, to stay on longer.
In an unrelated incident, a leak in an on-shore fuel tank at a McMurdo Station helicopter pad Feb. 19 resulted in a spill of roughly 6,500 gallons of diesel fuel. The leak, discovered by a technician readying the helopad for its daily operations, was restricted by absorbent booms to an area surrounding the tank. Within 30 minutes, the station's spill-response team directed the flow to facilitate recovery and removal of the fuel. Those efforts continue. Much of the fuel, along with contaminated soil and snow, has been taken from the site for proper disposal in the U.S.
"The response was immediate and aggressive," said NSF Representative David Bresnahan at McMurdo Station. "And the cleanup will continue as long as weather permits it to be done safely."
The McMurdo population swells to about 1,100 persons during the research season and then drops to roughly 220 from February through October.
Operating under the international Antarctic Treaty, NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates almost all U.S. scientific research on the southernmost continent. In average year, more than 100 research teams travel to the continent to conduct research in almost all scientific fields, including astronomy, astrophysics, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.
NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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