Last Friday, Sebastian Vivancos embarked on the journey of a lifetime: He was headed to Antarctica.
In Punta Arenas, Chile, Vivancos, a recent graduate of Columbia University, boarded the Laurence M. Gould, an icebreaker that would take him and others across the Drake Passage and to the National Science Foundation's Palmer Station.
"The trip across was incredible," Vivancos wrote in an email. "The wind howls incessantly, the huge waves crash against the side of the ship rocking it back and forth."
Vivancos, who plans to start a doctoral program in the geosciences next year, was going to stay in Antarctica six months, while he and other scientists, part of the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research program, collected data on ocean chemistry and biology.
But on the day they arrived, he and other researchers were told they would have to turn around and go home.
"The station manager officially notified us that Palmer Station had been put on caretaker status since there was no official budget, which meant no money had been appropriated to conduct our research. Hence, there was no science to be done," Vivancos said.
The National Science Foundation announced Tuesday that it was putting its three Antarctic research bases in caretaker mode, with only skeleton crews remaining to maintain the stations.
Researchers at the station could hardly believe what they were hearing, Vivancos said. "This had never happened before -- it not only affects our livelihood in economic terms but the driving purpose of these scientists' lives."
Now, he continued, "everyone is preparing to leave, packing so that everything is ready to be shipped back. The word to best describe the mood is 'uncertain,' kind of like being held hostage."
Research refugees ponder options
Antarctic researchers in the United States who had been readying for their field season are now scrambling, trying to make alternate plans for what research they might be able to accomplish once the shutdown ends.
"We are just trying to come up with all sorts of plans, a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C," said Diana Wall, a soil scientist at Colorado State University who is part of a team that conducts long-term ecological research in Antarctica's dry valleys.
The group of researchers Wall works with were planning to meet yesterday and today in Boulder, Colo., to come up with several contingency plans for the research season.
As Wall and others described it, scientists whose field seasons are affected by the shutdown are only in sporadic communication with the few employees of the National Science Foundation who are not furloughed, like Scott Borg, who heads the Antarctic science portion of the NSF's polar program.
Many affected researchers are gleaning much of their news from contractors and from other media reports. Right now, the only thing they can do is make backup plan after backup plan.
"If there is a chance, say next week, they say, 'All of you can't go, but you can go and do XYZ.' We need to come back with, 'This is our first priority, this is our second priority, this is the data that can't be missed,'" Wall said.
The impacts to climate research, which relies on continuous series of data, could be significant.
Data gaps being created
Hugh Ducklow, a professor and biological oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, heads up the long-term research program at Palmer Station.
Researchers have 22 years of continuous observations from that site, which include measurements of ocean chemistry and biology. An unbroken series of observations on Adélie penguins, which in that region have experienced population crashes as sea ice disappears, goes back to the mid-1970s, Ducklow said.
Vivancos, who will soon be heading home instead of conducting research, was part of the Ducklow team that just arrived at Palmer. They were scheduled to go out in Zodiac boats and start taking ocean measurements for the year.
"If we don't get these observations, it's not like you can just go back and get them a year later, because every year is unique. Those observations and those data are gone forever," Ducklow said. "If you have gaps in the record, it invalidates a lot of the kinds of statistical analyses you can do. ... The records just lose a lot of their scientific value."
Diane McKnight, a University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher who leads a long-term research project called McMurdo Dry Valleys, takes stream flow measurements and lake profiles, which are samples at a series of depths in the lakes, in the dry valleys every year.
"We are interested in how ecosystems respond to changing climate," McKnight said. "In the dry valleys, water is critical for living systems to function, so the streams are ecosystems that really turn on biologically when the water first comes down, when the glacier first starts to melt."
Typically, streams start flowing between November and early December, she said.
"If this is a summer where stream flow actually starts in early November, then we miss records," she added.
The team also takes its lake profiles in mid-November. This helps it document the changes in the lakes that occurred over the winter. If the streams start flowing into the lakes before team members get down there, they will miss that data for the year.
"We're most concerned right now about getting down to study the lakes," McKnight said.
Arctic impacts are less
The shutdown is having less of an impact with the Arctic, because the research season is winding down there, said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington. Arctic sea ice hit its annual low last month, and the region is entering its frigid fall and winter, when field research is not optimal.
Additionally, operations in Antarctica are far more centralized, relying on a few big bases staffed by government contractors, Joughin said. "In contrast, people manage their own logistics for the Arctic," he said. In Greenland, researchers typically use a local airport, not a National Science Foundation landing strip like the one serving McMurdo Station in Antarctica, he said.
"In addition, the Arctic research program is generally less expensive, because it's closer to home, and we also don't maintain a series of bases the way we do in the Antarctic," said Zachary Brown, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University.
However, there are concerns about layoffs of employees and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money related to a few still-pending Arctic missions.
Because of the shutdown, a scheduled three-week experiment on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-owned P-3 plane to survey the re-formation of Arctic ice near Alaska did not begin operations last weekend as planned, said Thomas Ackerman, director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. The institute receives funding from NOAA.
If the P-3 flight is canceled, about $800,000 in promised grant money to the institute from the Office of Naval Research will be lost, Ackerman said. "If the research grants fail, it's not just like, 'Oh, shucks.' Instead, it's 'I don't have a salary,'" he said. Ice formation in the studied region occurs in October, so there is a small window of opportunity for a flight, he said.
Then there are meetings. If the standoff doesn't end soon, State Department senior Arctic official Julie Gourley may not be able to attend a key meeting of the Arctic Council in Canada in two weeks. "It would mean there would be no U.S. representation at the meeting, which would be a loss for the U.S. to advance issues of interest and concern," said Heather Conley, director of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The council is grappling with everything from black carbon emission to shipping lanes, and there are only a few pivotal meetings a year, she added.
Similarly, Jacqueline Grebmeier, a research professor at the University of Maryland, said cancellation of planned events like October's meeting of the Polar Research Board in Washington, D.C., will prevent a lot of scientists from around the world from doing important legwork with other scientists and government officials for next year's research season.
Kansas high schoolers also miss out
Established Antarctic research projects are not the only ones hard hit by the shutdown. Hundreds of Kansas high school students scheduled to participate in an educational project on Antarctica may also lose out.
The program is part of a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Rutgers University researcher Grace Saba, who studies plankton in Antarctica.
Saba, who is from Kansas, had paired her Antarctic field work, which was scheduled to start this year, with a yearlong Antarctic science educational project involving several Kansas high schools and hundreds of students.
The effort, called Project PARKA, aims to connect landlocked Kansas students with ocean science, Saba explained. She and Kristin Hunter-Thompson, who works in the 4-H Youth Development Department at Rutgers, had trained several science teachers in Antarctic science over the summer.
This fall, the students were to conduct a series of lessons and experiments that taught them about Antarctica. Then, when Saba was in Antarctica, she was going to make live calls to the students, and they would discuss her research.
At the end of the year, the students and Saba would have a science symposium, where they would present data and results.
"I had materials to ship to the teachers. They are sitting in my office. They can't get shipped out," Hunter-Thompson said.
The teachers involved in the project said they were still moving forward with lessons about Antarctica but were disappointed that the shutdown might curtail the most engaging part of the curriculum.
"We have spent much time in preparation for the events in Antarctica this winter. Unfortunately, I will have to explain how a government shutdown has now affected their education," said Frances Wecker, who teaches science at Emporia High School in Emporia, Kan.
Stacie Borjon, a biology teacher at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kan., was excited to offer her students an opportunity to interact with a scientist in the field.
"Students often have a perception of a scientist as a man working by himself in a lab. With Project PARKA, students get to see not only collaboration between scientists, but Grace Saba is a role model for young women as well," Borjon said.
As of Tuesday, Saba had already shipped her lab equipment south, for what she thought would be the first of two seasons studying the impacts of ocean acidification on krill, an important food source for penguins and marine mammals in Antarctica.
Now, in addition to her concerns about Project PARKA, Saba doesn't know whether she'll be able to conduct her research or if her field seasons will simply get pushed back a year.
"This is my first funded research grant, and I'm super bummed," she said.
Outside research continues
Judith Gan, who directs the NSF's legislative and external affairs, said that she did not have access to data on how many research projects are being affected but that the NSF hopes to allow research in Antarctica to continue once Congress passes a budget.
"As we move to caretaker status, we are also developing plans to recover as much of the austral research season as possible, and this is highly dependent on the timing of an appropriation," she said.
Antarctic researchers who work outside the U.S. system will be able to go ahead with their season and climate research.
Dale Andersen, who is with the privately funded SETI Institute in California, said he plans to arrive in Antarctica on Nov. 4 and hopes to set up another station to begin long-term climate monitoring in part of Queen Maud Land, part of East Antarctica claimed by Norway.
Andersen called the U.S. Antarctic program "a true scientific research gem" and expressed his disappointment that important research is being scuttled.
"Many of my friends and colleagues that are funded or working for the U.S. Antarctic program are in dire straits right now ... just because of self-inflicted stupidity via Congress as far as I can tell," he said.