Government shutdown leaves Antarctic researchers out in the cold

Half a world a way from the US capital, the US Antarctica Program is now in 'caretaker status,' suspending numerous projects underway on the continent. 

Paukine Askin/Reuters
Adelie penguins walk on the ice at Cape Denison in Antarctica in 2009. The government shutdown has now arrived in Antarctica, suspending most research there, including two decades of ongoing research on the penguins.

After the government shutdown suspended projects as far afield as Mars last week, it came as little surprise yesterday that Antarctica is not far enough from the US capital to escape the infighting there.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that funding for the US Antarctica Program will run out on October 14, unless the agency receives its appropriations. In advance of that deadline, the NSF said that it had directed Lockheed Martin Corp., its Antarctic support contractor, to begin putting its assets into “caretaker status,” effectively canceling all the program’s research activities in the sub-glacial region.

As ships pointed toward Antarctica turn back, Antarctica researchers now face the prospect of missing an entire season in the field – just as the research season on the continent was beginning. That’s a loss that could null the results of projects measuring changes over time, waste funds and resources, complicate the careers of graduate students, put numerous contractors out of work, and delay anticipated scientific breakthroughs.

“We broke new frontiers and changed the way you see the continent, but we can’t follow up on what we did,” said John Priscu, a researcher at the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project and the lead investigator on the team that became the first to find microbial life in a sub-glacial lake earlier this year.

Under caretaker status, the US Antarctica Program will be staffed at just the minimum level to protect life and property – namely, its three research stations, ships, and other equipment, the NSF said in a statement. In the meantime, all “non-essential” operations will be put on hold and their personnel will be sent home, the agency said.

The NSF says it will use the hibernation period to prepare a game-plan for reinstating the program after it receives its funding. But the agency also said that it does not expect all its projects to reopen this year, as seasonal windows for certain operations will close the longer the shutdown continues. The summer season in Antarctica lasts from about September to March, since outside of those months the sunless skies and temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit make work on the ice unfeasible. Some projects have even narrower feasibility time frames within the summer season.

Besides seasonal challenges, logistical problems stemming from the delay could also jeopardize some projects, including the investigation of microbial life in Lake Whillans, a project that has loomed large in the public imagination, hinting at the forms of life that might have set up shop on Europa, Jupiter's frosted moon. 

Earlier this year, Lake Whillans had emerged as a jewel in an international hunt for life in the sub-glacial Antarctic lakes: the buried lake, against all expectations for what life needed, had microbes. This season, the team had planned to continue their work some 60 miles afield from Lake Whillans, where the lake drains into the Ross Sea.

But the “caretaker status” stipulations have now upended the team’s planning for the trip. If the shutdown continues, the project will have to cancel more and more of the flights scheduled to ferry equipment to the remote continent, Dr. Priscu said, noting that “it’s not like if 10 aircrafts don’t fly this week, they’ll just fly the next week. We just don’t get them at all,” he said.

And within a couple weeks, the team’s contractors – who were due to fly southward from New Zealand today – will have been forced to find paying work, plunging the team into a time-consuming hiring process, he said.

“Planning for any scientific work in Antarctica is a long term process,” says Amanda Achberger, a graduate student at Louisiana State University and a member of Priscu’s team. “The details are worked out months if not years in advance and are very difficult to alter.”

“I am not sure that anyone has a good understanding yet of how easy it will be to reverse this process and get back to any kind of normal operations,” she told the Monitor in an email.

The prospect of missing this year’s field season also threatens to disrupt the careers of the graduate students working in Antarctica. Though Ms. Achberger has enough data from a previous trip to the continent to finish her graduate degree, the loss of the season could “minimize the scientific value that can be gained from this project,” she said.

And for Alicia Purcell, a first year graduate student at the University of Tennessee and a member of Priscu’s team, the looming cancellation would mean missing her first field trip to Antarctica this season, after months of planning for it.

“The work in this field season was to lay the foundation for my research career,” she said in an email to the Monitor. “I know how fortunate I was to have this opportunity and now that is all in jeopardy.”

Priscu says that he hopes that the NSF will “go to bat” to help students secure the needed funds to support their field research.

“I’m not worried about myself so much as I’m worried about the students,” he said.

Among the other projects now suspended are two other WISSARD projects, both of which are involved in assessing the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. A 20 year long project monitoring the Adelie penguin has also been mothballed, Nature reported. And the Scripps Glaciology Group has been forced to cease its research on ice sheet behavior, which is expected to help in predicting future sea level rise.

“All US Antarctic-based research suspended for now,” tweeted Scripps Glaciology, yesterday. “While not unexpected, it's exceedingly dumb and frustrating.”

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