Antarctic Science Next Casualty of Capitol Hill Standoff

Antarctic science next casualty of Capitol Hill standoff
With the government shutdown seeing no signs of ending soon, Antarctic research projects are next in line to suffer from the political infighting in Washington

With the government shutdown now heading towards day 13, the list of casualties seems ever-expanding. Thousands of government employees have been furloughed. From a scientific standpoint, Congress’ indecision over the latest budget has affected national health institutions, grant applications and disease monitoring, whilst a number of scientific research projects and clinical trials have also been shelved. Next in line to suffer, from the standoff on Capitol Hill, are the many scientists involved in Antarctic research.

Antarctic Science Shutdown

As was reported on Oct. 8, the entire U.S. Antarctic research program will be placed on ice for this year, owing to the ongoing shutdown. The National Science Foundation (NSF) explained that employees, based at three United States science stations throughout the Antarctic, would be dispatched back home; it was reported that a small contingent would remain to maintain the buildings and equipment.

The New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully talks about the shutdown, stating that a number of research studies would be delayed until the following year. In the interim, until Obama can end the stalemate with the Republicans, McCully explains that existing Antarctic research work, including collaborative projects with other countries, would be placed on hold.

According to the International Business Times, New Zealand scientists, located in Scott base, have reservations over how the shutdown is likely to influence outstanding and future research projects. New Zealand scientists have already offered to assume control of the various projects, until such a time as American researchers can continue their work.

Many Antarctic researchers are now flying back home
Antarctic scientists are being called back home, in response to the government shutdown, placing vast numbers of research projects in jeopardy

In the meantime, U.S. scientists are currently in the process of being shipped back from the Antarctic, to either New Zealand or Chile, before returning to the United States. Speaking to LiveScience, NSF spokesperson Judith Gan was unable to speculate on exactly how many people would be making the return trip home, or at what cost.

The shutdown is also reported to impact upon the research efforts of other countries, including France, Italy and New Zealand, who are reliant upon the ice runway at McMurdo station.

The NSF states they would endeavor to resume scientific research programs after the government shutdown subsides; unfortunately, this will be too late for many within the community, who have missed their window for the Antarctic research season, which began Oct. 3.

Antarctic Bases in “Caretaker Mode”

McMurdo Station has been shuttered
McMurdo Station has been put into “caretaker mode,” until the government shutdown can be amicably resolved

With a small skeleton crew remaining in the Antarctic bases, stations like McMurdo are now entering “caretaker mode.” In essence, only critical operations will continue, and scientific research will stop.

According to Hubert Staudigel, who works at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a whole season of research is likely to be abandoned. The harsh weather conditions of the region imposes tight deadlines upon research teams. Alas, the shutdown has arrived at precisely the wrong time, commencing at the start of the Antarctic summer. As all research must be conducted within a three month time slot, the shutdown continues to eat away at vital research time.

Speaking to Huffington Post, Staudigel briefly elaborates on this point:

“You can get everybody home in two weeks… but then you can’t just get started again.”

Antarctic ice melt will no longer be monitored, research into Antarctic lakes have been thwarted, climate and ocean studies have been thrown into disarray, and seal tagging will not be performed for this year.

Henry Kaiser, who has spent many seasons working in the Antarctic, and has formed a number of relationships with many researchers from the scientific community, explained the disastrous consequences of losing even a single year from multi-year studies. Scientists spend years planning and preparing their expeditions and research experiments. As these scientists, and their students, rely upon the success of these experiments to sustain their careers, it is theorized that some will be forced to depart these research fields.

Scientific Institutions Go Dark

Congress has a key responsibility in the constitution – to pass spending bills to fund the government. This is a responsibility that congress failed to uphold, with the House Republicans using the government shutdown to negotiate changes to the health care law.

This situation has resulted in hundreds of thousands of government employees being placed into unpaid furlough. Many national parks, federally-run wildlife refuges, museums and monuments have closed, whilst numerous scientific research programs have been paralyzed.

Ghost towns are now common across biomedical research facilities, such as the National Institute of Health, whilst the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lumbers

Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia
Green Bank Telescope, in West Virginia, is one of the many U.S. radio telescopes to have been temporarily shutdown

on in an ineffectual capacity, woefully understaffed to handle the latest Salmonella outbreak that has swept across the country; and, with the flu season looming on the horizon, further complications await.

In addition, around half of all workers at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Food and Drug Administration have been furloughed. 95 percent of employees working for the Environmental Protection Agency are completely idle, and many from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have also suffered the same fate.

The space agency, NASA, has canceled a number of events, with early research programs stalled, and the organization’s website no longer accessible. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has shuttered a number of facilities across North America, including Green Bank Telescope, in West Virginia, and the VLA and VLBA telescopes of New Mexico.

Meanwhile, as the scientific community goes dark, members of Congress continue to receive payment.

By: James Fenner

Related Articles:

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Gene Shuffling Microbes Dominate Lake of Antarctica

Antarctica Sea Ice Reaches Record High: Doesn’t Refute Global Warming

Signs of Ancient Life Stirring in Antarctic Lake


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