How The U.S. Government Is Shutting Down Antarctica
PopSci just published a fascinating article on one issue particularly important here at Quantumaniac; how the government shutdown is affecting scientific research. As Jennifer Bogo writes, the shutdown could be particularly catastrophic for research in the Antarctic, where continuous weather patterns and trends are the focus.
PopSci writes: Last Tuesday, the U.S. Antarctic Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, announced it would be sending the three U.S. Antarctic stations into “caretaker” mode, suspending all research activities not essential to human safety and the preservation of property. By Thursday, all of the scientists at Palmer will be sent home, leaving the station with a skeleton crew of about a dozen contractors; if the shutdown continues, the disruption to the Antarctic summer research season could be catastrophic.
“We have 22 years of data showing the summer snapshot in this area that’s changing really rapidly,” says Oscar Schofield, an oceanographer at Rutgers University. “If we go to disaster scenario, where the whole season is lost, we’ll have a gap. The whole point of a time series is to have continuous data so that you can talk about the trends in the system. So that would be tragic.” Hugh Ducklow directs the long-term ecological research project at Palmer: “Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back—we lose this data forever,” he says. “Because of the nature of our work, where we’re analyzing long time series of data, as soon as you start getting breaks, some of the analyses become impossible. A lot of the scientific value of the past 22 years can be damaged by a single missed year.”
The researchers at Palmer have been pursuing this research since 1990, and have documented important trends for the study of climate change every year (including making their way through the last government shutdown of 1995).
Doing scientific research in Antarctica is incredibly important, and expensive. According to a March 2012 article in the NSF-funded Antarctic Sun (whose staff also appears to be furloughed), it costs about $85 million to operate the three U.S. Antarctic research stations. McMurdo and South Pole stations are accessible via air. Palmer sits on an island along the outstretched finger of the West Antarctica Peninsula and is supplied only by ship from Punta Arenas, Chile. When I visited the station, for a journalism fellowship in 2010, I was told a box of pencils for arrival on May 6th would have to be ordered by the 23rd of December because supplies, including scientific equipment, take a long, involved route from a port in Long Beach, California, south to the port in Punta Arenas, where they’re loaded onto the Gould. Expediting shipments to Punta Arenas by air was slightly faster, but at the time cost nearly $5 per pound.
Check out the full article here.
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