New Zealand Earthquake: Updates and Impact on the USAP
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Message from Dr. Subra Suresh
Director of the National Science Foundation

Dr. Subra Suresh comments on the earthquake and tsunamis in Japan late last week and the earthquake in New Zealand last month.

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At approximately 1:00 PM New Zealand time on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. Christchurch serves as the deployment hub for personnel of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site (NSF).

NSF expresses its deepest sympathy to the people of Christchurch who have been affected by this latest tragedy, especially coming as it does just months after the severe earthquake last fall.

Personnel travelling between New Zealand and Antarctica come through the Christchurch airport aboard U.S. military and New York Air National Guard aircraft. NSF also maintains offices and other facilities — including a warehouse and distribution center for field gear and passenger terminal for Antarctic flights — in the International Antarctic Centre adjacent to, but separate from, the airport.

NSF is deeply concerned about the welfare of those people affiliated with U.S. Antarctic Program who, as yet, have not been accounted for and remains hopeful that they will be discovered to be safe and sound.

Finally, NSF also recognizes that this is a rapidly changing situation and that information may continue to be updated over the next several days. More information will be posted at this site as the situation develops.


Posted June 23, 2011 3:30 PM MST

A number of tremors hit the earthquake ravaged city of Christchurch, NZ on Monday, June 13, 2011. The strongest quake was measured at a magnitude of 6.0 at 2:20 PM local time. No fatalities were reported, but New Zealand’s Civil Defense said 10 people suffered minor injuries.

Christchurch International airport was temporarily closed while safety inspections took place but was re-opened for both domestic and international flights. Passengers were told to expect delays and to check with their airline before traveling. All major highways connecting the city with other parts of New Zealand remained open.

Posted February 28, 2011 2:10 PM MST

All U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) personnel believed to be in New Zealand during the time of the Christchurch earthquake have been accounted for and are safe as of 7:34 PM Eastern Standard Time on February 25th, 2011. USAP officials worked around the clock to locate the nearly 600 scientists, support personnel and others who were traveling through the country after leaving Antarctica at the end of the 2010-2011 summer field season. No serious injuries were reported.

Many of the individuals were transported from the Christchurch region to New Zealand’s main city of Auckland on the North Island by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. That included about 200 additional people who flew from McMurdo Station on February 27th and 28th (New Zealand local time) to Christchurch aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 to transport most of the remaining summer crew from Antarctica. A final flight from McMurdo is scheduled for March 5th. A skeleton crew will remain at McMurdo Station through the winter months as part of normal operations and maintenance.

These flights from Antarctica are part of the USAP normal airlift schedule, and were not “emergency” evacuations, as has been reported by some media. Significant break up of sea ice in McMurdo Sound has hampered transportation to the airfield where the snow road is located, but station personnel are working to mitigate impacts.

Posted February 24, 2011 3:26 PM MST

Nearly 95 percent of U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) personnel believed to be in New Zealand during the time of the Christchurch earthquake have been accounted for as of 3:00 PM Eastern Standard Time on February 24th. USAP officials in Christchurch and the United States continue to work to track down the remaining personnel.

USAP participants who have taken shelter at the USAP facilities near the Christchurch International Airport are in the process of being transferred to Auckland with the help of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). We anticipate all remaining personnel at the USAP facility will be evacuated from Christchurch by Friday night (local time).

A U.S. Air Force C-17 is scheduled to make two flights over the weekend to transport about 200 summer personnel away from McMurdo Station, weather permitting. A storm in Antarctica had delayed flights, and McMurdo personnel are busy clearing snow from the roads and airfield. Passengers from McMurdo will first be flown to Christchurch, and then transferred to a RNZAF flight to Auckland.

Posted February 23, 2011 4:28 PM MST

Nearly 90 percent of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) personnel believed to be in transit from Antarctica or on vacation in New Zealand at the time of the February 22, 2011 earthquake that struck the city of Christchurch have been accounted for as of 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time on February 23rd.

The U.S. consulate in New Zealand has processed a number of USAP participants for travel documentation, and USAP officials anticipate most people may begin leaving Christchurch by today, as seats become available on commercial flights. Other personnel may be evacuated to the New Zealand capital of Wellington on the North Island by the New Zealand Defence Force.

About 65 USAP participants in Christchurch continue to receive shelter and food at the USAP facilities near the city's airport. No USAP participants have been reported to be seriously injured.

USAP incident command centers in Denver and Christchurch have monitored and responded to the developing situation since the earthquake hit shortly before 1:00 PM on Tuesday (local time). Both locations will continue to operate around the clock, seven days a week until all USAP personnel have been accounted for.

About 200 USAP personnel, scheduled to fly to Christchurch as the summer field season ends in early March, remain at McMurdo Station. Extremely bad weather in Antarctica has delayed flights, although operations are expected to resume as soon as possible.

Additional flights aboard U.S. Air Force aircraft are planned to fly those people off the Ice as soon as the situation in Christchurch allows. The USAP's largest research station is active year-round, and personnel scheduled to leave McMurdo are comfortable and safe.

Posted February 22, 2011 4:05 PM MST

Officials with the U.S. Antarctic Program have accounted for approximately 60 percent of the people affiliated with the program and reported to be in New Zealand when the earthquake hit. USAP officials began confirming the whereabouts and safety of personnel shortly after the quake struck and that percentage is expected to grow in the coming days as people continue to check in.

The balance of those as yet unaccounted for includes some mix of National Science Foundation — funded researchers and other personnel. Many of those unaccounted for may be on personal travel within New Zealand, but not necessarily in Christchurch.

The USAP participants currently in New Zealand are mostly U.S. citizens, as well as U.S. military personnel, who support the U.S. research program in Antarctica. The summer science field season is ending, and many of the people currently in New Zealand were en route from Antarctica to their homes or beginning vacations. Some had been in Antarctica since August.

Christchurch has been the main gateway city for the USAP since the 1950s. U.S. military aircraft fly out of the Christchurch International Airport to McMurdo Station between August and March to transport scientists, support personnel and cargo to and from "the Ice."

The USAP also employs New Zealand nationals to operate an office to support a gear warehouse, transportation services and other activities near the Christchurch airport. All New Zealand staff has been accounted for.

Those who have checked in with the USAP New Zealand travel office were being provided with sleeping bags and food.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Christchurch and New Zealand," said Karl A. Erb, who heads NSF's Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site. " Many of us have friends and family in that beautiful city, and we are heartbroken over this tragedy.

"We are doing everything possible — and will continue to work diligently — until all of our folks are accounted for," he added.

The last flight from the research base at McMurdo to Christchurch was scheduled to leave March 6, 2011. The remaining three flights are on hold and their schedule is still to be determined.

Additional Background

The National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs manages the U.S. Antarctic Program. The USAP includes three research stations — McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer — and two research vessels. The summer field season runs roughly between October and February at McMurdo Station, which is the largest of the three research stations, with a summertime population of more than 1,000 people. A smaller winter crew will remain at the station to maintain operations during the approximate six months of winter darkness. Research includes fields from glaciology to geology, and biology to astronomy. Support personnel come from nearly all 50 U.S. states and include IT professional, trades people and heavy equipment operators — all the professions required to run a small town.