South Pole Research Government Shutdown
October 9, 2013

South Pole Research Grinds To A Halt As Government Funds Dry Up

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Though the closure of national parks, regulatory panels and other government agencies have been the more public-facing aspects of the government shutdown, many research projects have also been affected by this gridlock. One in particular reaches all the way to Antarctica and, according to the researchers, a shut down here would mean total devastation for some long-term research projects.

The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and has been inoperative since October 1. Without this money, USAP stations have been suspended into “caretaker status,” a sort of bare bones method of operation to simply ensure that the people and property there are maintained.

What’s more, the government’s contractor that handles logistics in Antarctica, Lockheed Martin, says they’ll run out of money to run operations in the South next week. They’ll soon decide if they’ll continue with research operations or begin evacuating staff from the area.

In other words, the program responsible for getting researchers and their gear to Antarctica and the program which houses them are slated to spend the last of their money next week, just as major research initiatives are set to begin.

October is spring time in Antarctica, and as such researchers who have been preparing for this year’s data season have been arriving on the continent for the past several weeks. If Lockheed pulls their funding and the USAP runs out of money, the researchers will have to return home, leaving behind only skeleton crews to remain in the area to perform regular maintenance on the facilities.

“Just a week ago, even though we knew about the government shutdown and everything, we weren't really thinking it would impact us and our field season," said Peter Doran, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of earth science, speaking in an interview with NPR.

“What a difference a week makes. Now it all seems very uncertain. All the equipment that's been shipped down already for this field season, all the people having to reverse all that — for nothing? It really kind of makes me ill."

John Priscu, a biologist from Montana State University, says the harsh conditions in Antarctica, even during the warm months, means the decision to go into caretaker mode won’t be easily reversed.

“The planning goes on years ahead. I don't think you can just throw a switch and say, 'OK, we're better now,’" he said.

Many of the research projects being carried out in the southern continent have been going on for many years as scientists try to draw a bigger picture from a large collection of data. Now they say even missing one year of research could greatly skew their results and even destroy entire, long-term projects.

"If we miss a year, we'll never get it back again," said Hugh Ducklow of Columbia University who had been tracking a decrease in Adelie penguin populations over the past several years. "It's pretty devastating for our project."

While Antarctic researchers may be forced to sit this season out and risk losing years worth of data, other government-employed scientists are being asked to work without pay.

National Weather Service employees, for instance, are considered essential personnel who protect life and property, but they’ve worked the last nine days without a paycheck.