Government shutdown puts Antarctica research on thin ice

Spencer Klein/Courtesy

Right now, UC Berkeley graduate Zigmund Kermish should be preparing to launch a balloon-based telescope from Antarctica. This instrument, which would rise 120,000 feet into the atmosphere, collects data that might provide insight into the physics behind the Big Bang.

He would be on the ice by Nov. 1 if the U.S. government hadn’t shut down.

But without a spending bill to fund government operations, the National Science Foundation ran out of funds for the U.S. Antarctic Program about Monday, forcing a delay on Kermish’s work as well as that of other campus researchers. The shutdown comes at a crucial time for these scientists — the start of Antarctic summer, when many researchers head south to upgrade or begin projects.

Even if the federal government were to reopen tomorrow, Kermish said, researchers would not fully recover from the delay.

The base out of which these balloons are launched opens only for this period of about three months, during which weather further limits the time available for preparation and launch. Kermish, who is working on this project as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, said this instrument has been developing since about 2008.

Now, they must wait another year to collect data.

In an Oct. 8 statement, the NSF said it will continue to staff research stations in Antarctica at the minimum level, called “caretaker status,” required to keep people and property safe. What constitutes caretaker status, however, is still unclear to researchers.

“The rule is only essential operations can continue,” said Elizabeth George, a UC Berkeley doctoral student working on another project, the South Pole Telescope. “So in principle, you can say, ‘My equipment’s going to freeze — that is essential,’ but the reality of the situation is those decisions about what’s essential are not really made by scientists.”

The South Pole Telescope detects remaining light from the Big Bang, according to George, which can be used to study the early universe. Regardless of what the NSF decides to do, she said, any delay can wreak logistical havoc on such a large enterprise.

“Anything you do in Antarctica is driven by logistics: You need food, you need fuel, you need transportation,” said Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory senior scientist Spencer Klein, who is involved with the Berkeley IceCube group, which also does work in Antarctica. “Things that are just minor details here are enormous down there.”

George fears that, because of the current delay, the fuel required by these research stations will not arrive in time to start them up for next year. In that case, South Pole Telescope researchers will lose a year of data.

Additionally, contract workers, who agree to work in Antarctica for a set period of time, will be out of a job if a lack of funding prevents their deployment.

Klein faces similar issues in his South Pole project. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory — one cubic kilometer in volume — detects subatomic particles called neutrinos, which possess incredibly high energies. Scientists hope they can see how the particles reached such high energies by tracking their direction.

Klein said the NSF is unlikely to risk damaging equipment, considering the organization has already invested $242 million in IceCube. According to Klein, the observatory needs at least two people at the South Pole to maintain the technology and collect data. If data collection continues but the shutdown prevents researchers from flying down to upgrade the hardware this Antarctic summer, he said, the sacrifice will be survivable but not ideal.

“I just feel pretty helpless about the situation,” Klein said. “Everybody’s kind of making this up as they go.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected].