Kept in from the cold: The U.S. government shutdown & the Arctic

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park: Can't shut this. (c) Douglas Perkins/Flickr

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park: Can’t shut this. (c) Douglas Perkins/Flickr

The U.S. federal government shutdown’s dire consequences for research in Antarctica made the front page of The New York Times website today. On October 8, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it was canceling the U.S. Antarctic Research Program for 2013. The program has been placed on caretaker status, meaning that staff will be at a minimal level “to ensure human safety and preserve government property, including the three primary research stations, ships and associated research facilities.” Researchers from McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott, and Palmer stations are being evacuated to Christchurch, New Zealand, one of the nearest ports of call. Millions of dollars’ worth of research programs, from studies of penguins to subglacial lakes to Operation IceBridge – an importantly project that tracks annual changes in ice at both poles from a fixed-wing aircraft – are in jeopardy. The consequences of the shutdown may spread to other countries that rely on American infrastructure for some of their Antarctic research activities, such as New Zealand, France, and Italy, Nature’s news blog reports.

But what’s happening up north? Alaska’s economy is especially prone to the shutdown since 24.2% of all employees work for the federal government – the second highest proportion in the country, after Wyoming (source: NYT). While access to federally-owned lands is guaranteed under the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, the National Park Service has still closed the state’s ten national parks for recreation. Access for hunting and fishing, however, is still permitted. The Bureau of Land Management has done the same. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has blocked all types of access to its land. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) scolded federal authorities in The Washingon Times, criticizing, “It seems that agencies are working harder to keep people off federal lands than they have ever worked before to get them to visit federal lands.” But in a state as big as Alaska, with parks that are vast and remote, even the Park Service can’t just put up barriers to access. Imagine trying to put signs and fences around Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Measuring more than 8 million square miles, it’s the largest in the country – even bigger than the union’s nine smallest states.

The NSF Division of Polar Programs stated that although routine operations have been suspended, some “excepted” employees are remaining on the job up north. In a memo, the director expressed, “At no time will we compromise our ability to access our personnel for safety and to continue operations as appropriate. We will continue to house, feed, and provide care for our personnel currently deployed throughout the Arctic, including Summit Station, Greenland and Barrow and Toolik Lake, Alaska.”

icebridgeU.S. research in the Arctic, however, is not just done on the ground. Dr. Mark Serreze, Director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, explained in an email, “We depend on satellite data to track what is happening to the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice covers. Because of the government shutdown, the satellite data feeds have been turned off. We have lost our eyes in the sky.”

Over at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, two programs are likely to be shuttered. The first involves an aerial mission for which an airplane from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had been booked two years in advance. The second would have used a NOAA ship to retrieve six ocean research buoys in the Gulf of Alaska. In the absence of federal resources and infrastructure, the university institute will now likely have to pay $60,000 for a chartered ship to recover the buoys or else risk losing them in the winter season. And in my own research group at UCLA, doctoral students are unable to download necessary data from federally-funded satellite missions to further their research on glacial hydrology. What’s worse, however, is that projects that have been underway for years will now have significant, and possibly debilitating, gaps in their data collection.

Even if the shutdown ends soon, the effects of the shutdown will reverberate beyond this year at both poles. Research projects are scheduled years in advance. As the oil and gas industry knows, just a few weeks of adverse weather can end up delaying work for a year or more since the season in which much of the Arctic can be readily and safely accessed is so short. But this time, mother nature is not the cause of distress and disappointment in the Arctic: it’s the U.S. government.

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