Here’s how climate science will be affected by the government shutdown

Research vessels return to shore, field work put on hold, and disaster response efforts may be hampered.

The Wake Shield Facility (WSF), an experimental science platform, positioned at the end of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) on the space shuttle Discovery during NASA's STS-60 mission, February 1994. Behind the WSF is a wintry Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. (Credit: Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
The Wake Shield Facility (WSF), an experimental science platform, positioned at the end of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) on the space shuttle Discovery during NASA's STS-60 mission, February 1994. Behind the WSF is a wintry Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. (Credit: Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

The government officially shut down effective midnight, December 21. This means funding for hundreds of thousands of government employees across the country in half a dozen agencies comes to a halt — and this includes scientists.

All of these workers will now be forced into an indefinite period of unpaid leave, and for many it will put the nuts and bolts of their work on hold. In addition to potentially putting field work on hold and limiting access to data, most research vessels must return to shore, the monitoring of harmful algal blooms slows down, and disaster response efforts may be hampered.

“A shutdown would interrupt potentially life-saving information and observations from the scientists working at these agencies,” warned the American Geophysical Union ahead of the final shutdown vote.

“Scientists employed by the U.S. government, as well as other government employees, play a crucial role in our society. They are responsible for conducting research, making observations, and analyzing data that benefit Americans and societies around the world,” the group explained in a post published on Friday.


Should the shutdown last into the new year, one of the first widespread impacts to be felt across the agencies will be with the upcoming annual American Meteorological Society (AMS) meeting. The AMS is scheduled to take place in Phoenix, Arizona between January 6 and 11, and it has a significant climate change component.

Conferences like this are important hubs of collaboration and information sharing — for many it’s the one time of the year they are able to meet each other in person. But, similar to the 2013 shutdown, government scientists working under the affected agencies would not be allowed to attend any scientific conferences and meetings.

Among some of the government bodies hit hardest will be the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), which have been operating under temporary funding measures for most of the year. All of these agencies are responsible for critical scientific research, including on climate change.

Furlough rates — the number of employees put on unpaid leave — for these three agencies are much higher than others (at least 50 percent).


Across the government, only those workers classified as essential to the safety of life and property will be allowed to work. However, if your job is deemed essential, and you were planning on going home for the holidays, think again — during a shutdown all paid leave, like vacation time, is canceled for most agencies.

Other agencies responsible for important scientific work will also be impacted, but to a lesser extent. This includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will use special measures to keep all its staff on the job.

But for the NSF, it is “limited in its operations,” during a shutdown a spokesperson told ThinkProgress.

“No award payments will be processed or distributed,” they explained. “The NSF website will remain functional, but ongoing operational and administrative activities will be minimal unless the suspension of these activities will imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

According to its most recent contingency plan, just 60 of the agency’s some 2,000 employees will keep working during the shutdown. The agency’s headquarters will be shut down and furloughed employees will be prohibited from accessing any NSF facilities and devices.

And it’s not just government workers, but also scientists who rely on government funding that will feel an impact from the shutdown. The NSF is one of the main funders of scientific research — and during a shutdown it stops processing or issuing grants and payments. Previously, after the 2013 shutdown ended, NSF had to reschedule the grants for about 50 different programs.

For some scientists, this can be highly disruptive to their research. If a field research project, for instance, is pegged to a specific season, natural event or phenomenon, scientists will miss critical data if funding doesn’t come in time.


During the 2013 shutdown, the NSF’s annual field research season in Antarctica was disrupted because the agency was forced to put the bases into “caretaker” status, meaning all research had to be stopped. This year, the shutdown comes toward the end of the Antarctic summer, so research is likely to be less disrupted.

Meanwhile, NASA — which gathers climate and weather data via its satellites — will see a lot of its work stop apart from critical activities to maintain safety. This includes protecting those astronauts currently in space, as well as keeping the satellites in orbit.

As a NASA spokesperson told ThinkProgress, “essential personnel continue to ensure that the satellites operate properly,” and this includes gathering data.

NASA’s Landsat satellite data for instance is used by people around the world. But just because the programs will continue to gather data doesn’t mean scientists will have access to it.

According to NASA’s contingency plan, its website goes dark during a shutdown. “All websites are turned off during a shut down,” the spokesperson said, “so all data shared there would not be available.”

Finally, at NOAA, about half of its 11,400 employees will be furloughed. But many that work on weather and climate will keep working — just not necessarily with a paycheck during that time.

Housed under NOAA, for example, is the National Weather Service. This means that some operational weather forecasters and others considered critical to public safety would continue working, including those that monitor hurricanes and tsunamis.

Other exceptions to the shutdown include a reduced staff to maintain NOAA’s greenhouse-gas monitoring stations. But like NASA, it’s not guaranteed that other scientists will be able to access all of NOAA’s data.

And it’s not just scientists who rely on this type of information; private companies, for instance, frequently turn to the federal government for weather data.

Most of NOAA’s vast fleet of research vessels, however, will need to return to the nearest port. Marine mammal rescue events typically suffer during a shutdown, and just one person will remain in place to monitor the system that predicts and detects harmful algal blooms.

A shutdown may also impact relief efforts to events made worse due to climate change. During January’s brief shutdown, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was temporarily crippled. And with the impacts of the Camp Fire in California still unfolding, things will likely be hampered once again — under a shutdown FEMA may not be able to process disaster or emergency requests unless there’s a clear threat to life or property.

The need to protect the country from natural disasters during a shutdown, however, puts some in an odd position. As Nick Underwood an aerospace engineer and hurricane hunter, explained on Twitter, his job tracking hurricanes is deemed essential, so he won’t be able to go home to visit friends and family over the holidays — even though there aren’t any hurricanes to track right now.

The same would go for many government employees who have been tackling California’s wildfires. Many people within the Department of Homeland Security and the Interior Department who have been handling response efforts — some perhaps for months and who rightly deserve a break — will likely be classified as essential and must remain at their posts.

There’s also another more subtle impact from a shutdown. As Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor and director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program writes in Forbes, “I hear students express concerns about going into civil service because of the gamesmanship of shutdowns. This is a problem.”

“If our best and brightest avoid federal service, it means that places like the National Weather Service, FEMA, NASA, NOAA and intelligence agencies are not getting them,” he continued. “These are organizations [that] provide critical services to the nation and are highly technical in nature. They need the best and brightest.”