As shutdown continues, concerns mount over its impact on climate science

In the era of the Internet, the government's decision to shut down access to websites and data sets has made research difficult for many weather and climate researchers.

Take Bruce Vaughn, who runs a climate science lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His lab analyzes samples of greenhouse gases collected from around the world by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But when the shutdown hit Tuesday, he was faced with losing access to the NOAA computers he needs to do his work.

"I was irate because we were looking at losing access [to government servers]," Vaughn said. The scientist "lobbied and pleaded," and finally managed to get access to those servers. "Which I probably shouldn't advertise. But we need access to the NOAA data."

The problem is not unique to Vaughn.

"I do weather research, and right now some of the websites we go to and some of the computers we use are not available. Some of the supercomputers we use are not available. The data sets we use are not available," said Cliff Mass, a weather researcher at the University of Washington.

When asked which of his colleagues were also experiencing this problem, Mass answered: "Anybody. We're all being affected by this."

Mind the gap


Colorado's Vaughn also worried about the far-flung network of measurement stations that regularly take a sample of air, put it in a flask and mail it to NOAA. These stations are located in places as varied as far northern Alaska, the South Pole and Mongolia.

This monitoring of greenhouse gas concentrations "is sort of the finger on the pulse of the atmosphere, if you will," Vaughn said.

NOAA ships out sampling flasks on a daily basis. If the stations run out of flasks before they receive new ones, there is a potential for a gap in the global measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations, which will have a negative effect on climate models, Vaughn said.

Russell Schnell, the deputy director for NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado, confirmed that it has not sent flasks out since the shutdown.

"Everyone has like a two-week surplus of flasks," Schnell said. "The longer it goes, the more issues start piling up because we are on a very tight and smooth schedule where everything is moving on a daily basis."

The lab also regularly ships out standard gases used for calibration, and those are also in a backlog due to the shutdown, Schnell said.

"If you don't have the gases or the other materials you need, you also have to shut instruments down."

Antarctic fieldwork could be delayed

Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, it also has the potential to affect time-sensitive fieldwork.

October marks the beginning of Antarctic field season for NASA's IceBridge campaign. The research effort surveys polar ice in an effort to learn how ice sheets are changing as the Earth warms and, ultimately, how they might contribute to sea-level rise.

This year, IceBridge is scheduled to take its P-3 aircraft to McMurdo Station to look at ice streams that feed the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica.

Normally, technicians at Wallops Flight Facility would be readying the aircraft for its Antarctic journey. Right now, though, the project scientist for IceBridge, NASA's Michael Studinger, is on furlough and Wallops is closed.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there's only one runway the P-3 can use at McMurdo, and it's on sea ice. This places a time crunch on the project, because that runway closes Nov. 28 due to breakup of the ice during the summer season, said Ian Joughin, a University of Washington scientist involved in the project.

Given that even in Antarctica's summer it can be hard to find a window of good flying weather, the slowdown has the potential to negatively affect the mission. The P-3 must first fly to New Zealand and then await a clear weather window to make it to McMurdo, said Duncan Young, a University of Texas researcher who is a member of the IceBridge science team.

The longer it takes the P-3 to get to New Zealand, the fewer windows there will be.

"The weather in Antarctica is terrible and unpredictable. So you only have a few opportunities to get your flights done," said Young. "The more things get delayed, the higher barrier it is to achieve the science."

Although the shutdown is a disruption, funding for Antarctic research has been increasingly constricted ever since the sequester, Young pointed out. Even before the government ceased operations, he had seen a number of projects, including one of his own, put on hold.

"The shutdown is on top of the sequester, which has kind of been a slow-motion shutdown," said Young.

An IceBridge flight campaign in Greenland is also on hold until the government reopens, he added.

Research grants in holding pattern

Because the National Science Foundation has shut down its website and operations, researchers with NSF grants are also seeing problems, said Grant Deane, a research oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Deane pointed out that the website the NSF uses for grants, Fastlane, has stopped operating. Scrolling down on the page, which leads off noting that the services it offers are unavailable "due to the lapse in government funding," Deane highlighted one sentence in particular: "No new continuing grant increments will be awarded."

"That's very serious," said Deane, because it means researchers whose funding comes in pieces will not be receiving those funds until the government reopens.

The shutdown has the potential to affect young scientists significantly, said Deane. While seasoned researchers like him often have funding from multiple grants and resources, including their salary being paid by the institution, graduate students are often funded by one particular grant. If it does not come through, they will have to scramble for funding.

"This is the next generation of scientists who are going to carry our country and economy to the future, we hope. But if we don't pay them, what are they going to think of that?" he asked.

The panels of scientists that meet to make recommendations on grant funding are also canceled during the shutdown, so researchers who are waiting to hear about funding for grants they have already submitted will also see that postponed.

Another Scripps researcher, Helen Amanda Fricker, who works with NASA on the next polar ice observation satellite, IceSat II, said she was planning a meeting on that NASA mission for Oct. 15-17 but will probably have to cancel that.

"And we are going to be liable for the hotel, things like that," Fricker said.

While she did not think the shutdown would likely affect the launch date for the satellite, Fricker did say the shutdown was very disruptive.

"We're definitely going to lose some continuity," she said. "Then it takes a while to get back up and going when people have been away."

In a poignant post on his website, oceanographer Jonathan Lilly decried the situation, highlighting the key role government scientists have played in lifesaving advances like hurricane prediction. Due to the shutdown, furloughed government scientists like these, with families to feed and mortgages to pay, are losing morale.

"You think, perhaps this is a message from the universe that I should be doing something different," Lilly wrote. "This is the position that many scientists across our country find themselves in at this moment."

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