Continued Shutdown Would Spell The End Of U.S. Scientific Research In Antarctica This Year

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antarctica_08The National Science Foundation (NSF) will have to evacuate its Antarctic research centers if the shutdown persists through mid-October, a move that would mean the end of this year’s research season in the region.

So far, the NSF has kept open its three Antarctic research centers — the McMurdo, Amundsen–Scott and Palmer stations — during the shutdown. But Lockheed Martin, the NSF’s Antarctic operations contractor, says it will run out of money by mid-October, at which point the centers will be forced to evacuate all but the most essential staff if the shutdown is still going on. This would mean that hundreds of scientists’ studies in glaciology, ecology and climate-related fields would grind to a halt, ending a season of research that usually stretches from October to February.

If that happens, it would strike another blow to NSF scientists, who have already had to reevaluate their studies and cut members of their staff after across-the-board 5.1 percent sequestration cuts went into effect in March. Projects like Operation IceBridge, an initiative that’s working to map ice sheets across Antarctica, would be harmed — as Nature points out, even a delayed start in this year’s research season could put a major kink in Ice Bridge’s schedule. A project studying Antarctica’s pristine subglacial lakes would also be affected — and that’s after the project had to eliminate eight scientists and cut the planned days for research this year in half because of sequestration cuts.

“Science will inordinately bear the brunt of these fiscal problems,” Mahlon Kennicutt, former president of the 31-nation Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research told Nature. “This is a long-term issue. You have to wonder if there is a point at which this just can’t function.”

Antarctic research is crucial to determining how the region is responding to climate change — the U.S. Antarctic Program uses ice cores, for example, to construct climatic records. Already, researchers have found glaciers in the region are sensitive to changes in climate, and that increasingly warm and acidic waters are posing major threats to Antarctic krill, a crucial part of the Antarctic food chain. But Antarctic research isn’t the only science that’s being affected by the shutdown. The NSF has furloughed about 95 percent of its employees, and the National Institutes of Health, NASA and other scientific agencies have also been forced to whittle down their staffs. This means grant decisions will be significantly delayed and sensitive scientific projects abandoned for the time being. Because many experiments depend on gathering data at certain times of year or require scientists to monitor results on a regular basis, the lack of access caused by the shutdown put scientists’ projects in jeopardy.

“I don’t think the public realizes the devastating impact that this has on scientific research,” one government researcher, who remained anonymous, told Wired. “Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated. They involve specific treatments and specific times. You can’t just stop and restart it. You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment.”

ThinkProgress reached out to scientists involved in the NSF’s Antarctic research program, but they declined to comment.