U.S. government shutdown stalls Antarctic research


Instruments capture real-time data as they are deployed through subglacial Lake Whillans water and sediments. (WISSARD Project)

In February, John C. Priscu was on top of the world. Three decades of toiling at the bottom of the world, in Antarctica, had paid off when the Montana State University researcher’s team became the first to find bacteria living in shallow lakes beneath a half mile of ice, a discovery that could help scientists understand how life might survive in the dark and cold of other planets.

Accolades poured in. The Web site for Priscu’s Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project was on fire. Upon returning home to Bozeman, Mont., the team immediately began planning to return this winter to study microbial diversity in rivers that flow beneath the ice shelf from the subglacial lakes to the ocean.

But most members of Priscu’s team will be staying home to work in laboratories instead of boring more holes in the Antarctic ice. When the government shut down in October, they lost an entire, critical season in the field — and a year of data collection — because they can’t get into Antarctica.

Contracts for support personnel who fly planes, drive trucks, cook food, run drills, clean dorms and set up field camps were canceled by the shutdown, and it’s too late to get the 28 project teams back into Antarctica for the brief summer period, when the weather is warm enough to allow field research.

Untold sums of money have been wasted, graduate student careers have been upended and now Priscu and others are wondering about the future, with next year’s budget sequestration looming. For climate researchers, the shutdown continues to reverberate, long after most people have moved on.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Priscu said in an interview last week. “The waste, and my students who came on and trusted me and trusted the federal funding. I had to tell them: ‘Sorry guys, this is just the way it is.’ ”

In an Oct. 28 news release, the National Science Foundation, which gave Priscu a three-year $10.5 million grant to conduct his research, said that 28 of the 77 projects scheduled for this winter at McMurdo Station in Antarctica have been canceled. The shutdown forced the agency to send home everyone not essential to preserving safety and property at McMurdo, the NSF said.

“They are scientists themselves,” Priscu said of the NSF. “They had to remove good science from the field. And it must have killed them.”

Priscu had received word 10 days earlier in an e-mail from his NSF project manager, Lisa Clough. “Because the [U.S. Antarctic Program] went into caretaker status, there will not be 1) enough time, and 2) sufficient support to prepare for the upcoming field deployment,” Clough wrote.

Priscu’s team of 19 scientists and graduate students from 13 institutions was scheduled to fly to Antarctica in December. Drillers and others from the team of 37 — it was 45 before last year’s sequestration cuts — were scheduled to arrive in early October and begin setting up.

But lining up personnel to supply McMurdo and work in Antarctica takes many months of planning. When they were sent home or turned around in Christchurch, New Zealand, Los Angeles and elsewhere, it set back operations so much that some projects had to be terminated.

“We were probably an easy selection to cut because it was a big, complicated project that takes a lot of resources, and they had to cut somewhere,” said John Sherve, project manager in Montana for WISSARD.

Some people are still being paid but not for the jobs they thought they would be doing in Antarctica. Sherve, for example, is devoting much of his time to a small project of Priscu’s that measures seismic activity, which will get into Antarctica, and trying to get the WISSARD grant held over to the 2014-2015 season. But he will soon be cut back to part-time status.

“I hire somebody, I guarantee them a contract for two years,” Priscu said. “I’ve got the money. I’ve got to pay them. These people plan their lives around this.”

Graduate students Trista Vick-Majors and Alexander Michaud are in limbo, unable to gather the data they need to complete their doctoral dissertations and apply for postdoctoral fellowships or faculty positions at other universities. They must decide whether to take the risk that the project will be re-funded or do the best they can with only half the information they said they would gather for their PhD projects. Vick-Majors is looking at bacteria in the water column, while Michaud is studying life in Lake Whillans’s sediment.

“The WISSARD project is not just about Whillans,” Michaud said. “It’s about . . . understanding the whole subglacial ecosystem.”

Most critically, there is the research itself. Priscu is thankful that the project does not depend on an unbroken stream of annual data, as many other studies do. But that is about the only positive aspect he can find.

The complex project spent millions of dollars, some of it to build a specially designed hot-water drill with multiple bacteria filters and germicidal lamps to prevent contamination of the Lake Whillans water, which ensures that microbes come from below the ice, not above it.

“We don’t have samples” to analyze, Priscu said. “We have money. We’re ready to go. We’ve all gone through our medicals and physicals. . . . We have the money. It’s sitting here. But we don’t have samples.

“We lost the momentum of discovery,” he said.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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