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Friday, October 18, 2013

Government Shutdown Disrupts Scientists’ Work in Antarctica

A NASA scientific balloon awaits launch in McMurdo, Antarctica, in a picture taken in December 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

A NASA scientific balloon awaits launch in McMurdo, Antarctica, in a picture taken in December 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The 16 day government shutdown, despite being over, continues to affect the scientific world — all the way to the poles of the Earth.

The beginning of Antarctica’s research season begins in October and lasts about five months, until February — the region’s warmer months.

This means many scientists were delayed in starting their work and some wondered if they would lose the entire season.




Well, another effect of the shutdown: the world of government-funded science and research has been upended. The Smithsonian's astronomers studying the Milky Way lost access to their satellites, making pieces of their early research useless. The Centers for Disease Control were unable to monitor illnesses. Officials say we're now flying blind into the flu season.

The effects of the shutdown can be felt all the way to the ends of the Earth. This is the beginning of Antarctica's research season. It lasts roughly five months, between October and February, which means the gridlock in Washington delayed many scientists from starting and left others to wonder if they might lose the season altogether.

Dr. Robin Bell is senior research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Dr. Bell, what are you studying in Antarctica, and what impact did the shutdown have?

ROBIN BELL: I'm involved with two programs where we are trying to understand how the ice sheet is changing by making measurements from aircraft of where the top of the ice is and how thick it is.

YOUNG: So what happened?

BELL: Well, one program is - well, it was set to be on its way now. The scientists who were going south were supposed to be leaving today, and the plane was supposed to be all ready to go. This is an aircraft full of imaging systems. And since the imaging systems were supposed to be in the plane early October, that hasn't started yet.

YOUNG: Well, then what does that mean for you? What's the importance of the window of opportunity here?

BELL: Well, because there's only a brief time where you can go in and work in Antarctica, there's only a couple months where we can go in and make those measurements. The delay is putting real questions on whether or not we can get as much work done as we wanted to.

YOUNG: Well, and we're reading the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, cites a 1959 treaty, which sets aside the South Pole for science research, and he says this is going to be the first time that the U.S. may be missing. This has never happened before.

BELL: No, we often think of the U.S. as being a leader economically, but the U.S. is also a leader in polar science.

YOUNG: Well, and other scientists, for instance there's a group that's studying the Adelie penguin in Antarctica, and they are worried about delays, because if you have gaps in statistics, then all of your work is thrown out if you can't take in a certain amount of research.

BELL: Well, whenever you look at a plot of data, and you're trying to convince somebody about change, whether it's change in penguins or change in what the top of the ice sheet looks like, it's way more convincing if you have data points follow a straight line or follow a trend.

YOUNG: But you are going to get to go.

BELL: We are hoping to go. I mean NSF is still figuring out exactly what they can support. So our fingers are still crossed we're going to get to go and we're going to be able to give the ice sheet its annual physical.

YOUNG: That's Dr. Robin Bell, senior research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Dr. Bell, thanks so much.

BELL: Thank you very much, Robin.

YOUNG: So what about the stories shut out by the shutdown? For instance, why is there a crime drop in Camden, New Jersey? And should a public university pump funds into a new football program? Some professors are wondering that. We'll have these and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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