The political thaw leading to the end of the recent federal government shutdown is being greeted with relief by researchers who can now proceed with work at the coldest place on Earth.
When the Washington budget impasse brought most of the federal government's work to a screeching halt Oct. 1, there was immediate concern about the status of scientific projects on Antarctica, which was just entering its austral summer (November through March), the time most hospitable to research activity -- or anything else.
One of those concerned was Diane McKnight, a fellow at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and lead principal investigator for the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research project.
About 32 scientists from universities affiliated with that project travel to Antarctica for climate research during the course of the year. McKnight said about 12 of them had been hoping to leave soon, and two from CU would have been departing -- to commence work including measuring early-season streamflows into the Taylor Valley -- on Monday, if not for the shutdown.
They will now be headed down belatedly -- but at least with the shutdown over, they will go.
"We are in communication with National Science Foundation, and the NSF is figuring out what to do" in terms of finalizing travel arrangements, McKnight said. "A typical early start is like Nov. 10, so we are hoping to be among the first group of scientists to go down."
Rather than having researchers in place at McMurdo Station in time to then establish outlying field camps at streamflow measurement points near lakes Fryxell, Hoare and Bonney, McKnight said they may instead have to adapt by using helicopters to make day trips back and forth from McMurdo Station, effectively "commuting" to the points where data are being collected.
McKnight said the shutdown's shutdown was "great news." But she added that long-term, contingency planning is by necessity a specialty of Antarctic scientists, and they had not been panicking over a few weeks' delay.
"We weren't getting really depressed until we started thinking about (a resolution not coming until) the beginning or end of December," she said. "We thought (the chance of) that was pretty remote. A lot of other really bad outcomes would have come into play if they were still arguing about the debt ceiling in December. We thought things would be resolved."
A second Antarctica project with CU ties that was complicated by the federal shutdown was the work of Xinzhao Chu, a researcher with CU's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. She leads a team that is conducting studies of the middle and upper atmosphere over Antarctica with the Light Detection and Ranging system, which uses high optical light frequency to detect neutral and ionized atmosphere.
"In some ways, the shutdown was like a bad weather event, which prevents good lidar measurements so we lose science data," Chu wrote in an email. "I'm calling it 'political bad weather'."
Her group is hoping to make continuous measurements of the middle and upper atmosphere into space for a full 11-year solar cycle.
"Scientifically," Chu wrote, "it's important to understand variability within seasons. So the loss of one season would have been significant."
Students have very few years available in which to collect and analyze data for their doctoral theses, she said, so a loss in data could also delay doctoral candidates' progress by a year or more.
There were also concerns about staffing at the CIRES facility at Arrival Heights near McMurdo Station. The LIDAR equipment had been put on standby last week, in anticipation of doctoral student Weichun Fong's scheduled departure by Oct. 31 -- with no assurance that his replacement, student Chris Chen, would arrive in time to overlap and get two weeks' critical training from Fong.
Now, it appears Fong and Chen -- who is in Christchurch, N.Z. -- will overlap for at least a few days, helping to ensure successful summer and winter operations into 2014. The LIDAR equipment was recently cleared to be powered back up -- although that procedure was delayed Thursday by what is called "Weather Condition 1, which includes winds over 63 mph and a windchill of below --100 Fahrenheit. Friday, however, the lidar systerm was successfully turned back on.
Had the shutdown extended much further, Chu said, "There would be very significant and negative impact on several aspects of our research program."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.