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U.S. Antarctic Scientists Still Reeling From October Shutdown

13 February 2014 1:00 pm
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Poking holes. The WISSARD drilling project was one of many in Antarctica affected by the U.S. government shutdown.

NSF/WISSARD

Poking holes. The WISSARD drilling project was one of many in Antarctica affected by the U.S. government shutdown.

The 16-day shutdown of the U.S. government last fall is a distant memory for most Americans. But its negative impact is still rippling through the current Antarctic research season that ends this month. And polar scientists will continue to feel its effects next year.

The shutdown, which began 1 October after Congress failed to pass a 2014 budget, had a domino effect on logistics at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which spends more than $300 million a year to support scientists working on the frozen continent. “We lost a good month of our normal season,” estimates Scott Borg, head of NSF’s Antarctic science program. “It’s an opportunity cost that you can’t put a figure on.”

One huge problem was the shutdown’s bad timing. It occurred just as NSF was preparing to reopen its extensive scientific assets in Antarctica—labs, balloon launch sites, field stations, and the like—for the annual onslaught of scientists during the short austral summer. Without the authority to spend money, NSF had to reverse direction and begin winterizing those facilities so they could be shut down for an indefinite period. And that meant they weren’t ready for use when Congress finally passed a temporary budget measure that allowed agencies to reopen on 17 October.

NSF was already coping with the impact of sequestration, the 5% cut to every agency’s budget that took effect last March. Borg’s budget for Antarctic science had shrunk from $68 million in 2012 to $64 million in 2013, and it remained at that level under the temporary agreement that extended until Congress approved a final 2014 budget last month.

Together, those two events created a logjam that forced NSF to scale back work on a dozen scientific projects being carried out during the current season. And scientists with another 17 projects on this year’s lineup were told that they must wait until next year. In turn, the reshuffling of those 29 projects in all has created another logistical headache.

The deferred projects will require program managers to tap into some of the money they had planned to spend on the next round of grant proposals. And that will make the competition for remaining funds even stiffer than usual. But there will be new awards: After hearing rumors to the contrary, Borg sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter last week telling scientists that his program was still open for business and encouraging them to submit proposals before the 15 April deadline.

“The point of the letter was to say, ‘Hey, things aren’t that bad,’ ” Borg tells ScienceInsider. “Yes, we are facing some tough fiscal realities, but we don’t want people to give up.”

He acknowledges, however, that the deferrals likely will mean “that we’ll have fewer new starts next year. But we haven’t gotten to the point of not being able to do anything new.”

Fortunately for Borg and NSF, Antarctic scientists are no strangers to adversity. Even so, the past year has been a real challenge for Ralph Harvey’s team of meteorite collectors.

A planetary geologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Harvey had originally planned to send a dozen people for 6 weeks starting in late December to two promising sites in the Miller range of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. Although the team is funded by NASA, it relies on NSF for the extensive logistical support needed to put the team in the field.

Sequestration had already trimmed the size of this season’s team by one-third. And after the shutdown, Harvey says that “NSF’s desire to support people exceeds its grasp.” With fewer planes and crews available, the team was transported to the ice sheets in two groups, 3 weeks apart. Although Harvey says the team never lacked for the requisite food, fuel, and clothing to cope with the harsh conditions, the first group didn’t have enough bags, tape, and ID tags to process all of the rock samples they found.

As it happened, good weather allowed them to make the most of their 3 weeks together, and the team managed to bring back 330 samples to the McMurdo Station, the hub of U.S. operations. Stored in large freezers that preserve their chemical signatures, the rocks are then shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they are characterized, cataloged, and then distributed to scientists eager to study them.

But Mother Nature had other plans. Last weekend, a storm took out the ice pier at McMurdo, preventing the ship from loading the freezers. (Click here for an account of the ice dock problems and pictures.) “So we won’t be bringing home any specimens this year,” Harvey explains. “I hate to use the term ‘perfect storm,’ but this was the last in a series of extraordinary events this season.”

Harvey is now working with NSF to find a way to preserve the samples at McMurdo for an entire year. “Nobody likes to postpone characterization,” he says. “But fortunately, I don’t have any graduate students depending on them for their theses.”

That’s not the case for Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. Powell is chief scientist for the WISSARD project, a multiyear effort to drill into the subglacial Lake Whillans that flows from under the frozen continent into the Ross Sea. The work was to conclude this season with a series of 800-meter-deep holes drilled along its entire route.

The project requires heavy logistical support. The team must travel 1000 kilometers from McMurdo Station to a field site, a nearly 2-week traverse by ice tractor. They set up the drilling operation and plunge into what amounts to roughly a week of nonstop science. Then they have to make the return trip.

But the shutdown put a big crimp in those plans. Because of the project’s complex logistical needs, NSF decided to push the so-called groundling line project into next season, leaving 30 of the 38 members of the team high and dry. (NSF did provide logistical support for eight scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz, to collect data from and update instruments in boreholes drilled in previous seasons that do not tap into the lake itself.)

Last month, NSF gave Powell the green light to plan for what he calls a “cut-down version” of the project next January. It will mean fewer people and allow only one rather than three boreholes into the lake. “We wanted to look at the full transition from grounded to full floating,” Powell says. “But NSF said we can only do one hole, so we’ve selected a point in the middle.”

The shutdown also took a psychological toll on a new Ph.D. student Powell had recruited for the project. The student had already published two papers from a coring project in the Arctic as part of his master’s degree from another institution, Powell says, “and he was on a real high. But the shock of having this field season cancelled was so demoralizing that he decided to leave the program and look for a job. He was a great student, and I am very sorry to lose him.”

Borg says that NSF took into account the impact on students and early-career investigators in deciding which projects to support this year and which would need to be deferred. “We’re in discussions with all 17 PIs on how to go forward next year,” he adds.

Although Borg is still waiting to hear what his budget will be for the 2014 fiscal year, which ends in September, he hopes that it will approach the 2012 level.

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