An American Shutdown Reaches the Earth’s End
A version of this article appears in print on October 15, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: An American Shutdown Reaches the Earth’s End
Joseph Levy was preparing for a season of scientific research in Antarctica last week when he got the call: Stand down.
Data from equipment set up on past expeditions may be lost if scientists can’t retrieve it this year.
Dr. Levy, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics, is studying the climate history of the dry valleys of Antarctica by analyzing buried ice sheets that have been frozen since the last ice age and are beginning to thaw.
The research season in Antarctica typically starts around now, when things warm up enough to be merely frigid and scientists from around the world flock far south to conduct studies that affect our understanding of climate change, volcanoes, the family life of Weddell seals and much more. But with the United States government partly shut down, federally financed research has come to a halt for Dr. Levy and hundreds of other Americans. Even if a budget deal is struck, these scientists will have less time on the ice, and some will lose a full year’s worth of work as the narrow window of productive time closes.
“It’s like a biography of the earth with a couple of pages in the middle torn out,” Dr. Levy said. “Nature will have taken its course, and we will have not been there to see it.”
The shutdown in Washington is being felt acutely at the ends of the earth. Some 3,000 Americans work through the Antarctic summer, including scientists and support staff from the private sector and from federal agencies like the Defense and Energy Departments, NASA and the United States Geological Survey. Amid the battle over the country’s spending and debt limit, the National Science Foundation, which coordinates the Antarctic program, has ordered it into “caretaker status,” which means skeleton staffing. “All field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended,” the agency said in a statement last week.
While the agency said it would do what it could to restore the program “once an appropriation materializes,” it noted coolly that “some activities cannot be restarted once seasonally dependent windows for research and operations have passed, the seasonal work force is released, science activities are curtailed and operations are reduced.”
That troubles Dr. Levy and many other scientists deeply. Dr. Levy’s instruments have to be in place and taking their ice measurements before the permafrost begins its seasonal thaw in mid-November. This is the third year of the project, he said, and it is “sort of a crescendo year,” in which past measurements of the ice under the McMurdo Dry Valleys could be pulled together to make some predictions. “We know where it’s going; we want to know how long it’s going to be around, and we can’t make that measurement,” he said. “This year we were going to put all the pieces together.” Now, he is hoping that a resolution of the budget fight might allow him to salvage half of the year’s planned research.
While the shutdown directly affects only American researchers, scientists from other nations have come to depend on the robust transportation and logistics system developed by the United States, said Alexander Kumar, a British scientist. What is more, he noted, the effects will be felt beyond the inconvenience of a single summer. “A lot of the science depends on year-after-year collection,” Dr. Kumar said, so gaps in the record may damage data sets built on decades of work. “It’s tragic.”
Robin Elizabeth Bell, a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said it was impossible to gauge what would be lost because of the shutdown. Though scientists build in time for delays caused by weather and equipment trouble, she said, “field programs in a challenging place like Antarctica do not have the luxury of building in contingencies for closed governments.”
Samantha Hansen, an assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Alabama, was set to leave for Antarctica on Nov. 4. The government agencies she would normally turn to for information are shut down, and she has graduate students whose theses depend on what emerges from the dirt and snow of Antarctica.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Dr. Hansen said. Equipment that she put in place on previous trips needs to be serviced and repaired this year, and the stored data retrieved; by next year, the sensors could be so deeply covered in snow that the data, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, would be lost forever. “From a financial standpoint, it’s a big loss; from a scientific standpoint, it’s a big loss,” she said. “Frankly, the timing could not have been worse.”
Still, some scientists remain hopeful that something can be salvaged. Anne E. Todgham, an assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University, traveled 30 hours to Christchurch, New Zealand, with two graduate students and two postdoctoral scientists, and then waited through three days of weather delays to get to McMurdo Station. They finally arrived last Wednesday, eager to get out on the sea ice and begin their research on how some of the results of climate change, like ocean acidification, are affecting young fish.
Five days later, however, they were back in Christchurch, waiting for word that politics in Washington had thawed. If McMurdo reopens for business, Dr. Todgham said via Skype, “We’re hoping that we’ll be some of the first boots on the ground.”
In the meantime, she is staying positive: “I patted the ice when I left last night and said, ‘We’ll be back. Wait for us.’ ”