Ax Falls for Antarctic Research Projects After Shutdown

WISSARD heat pump
Heater Pump Unit 1 of the WISSARD hot-water drill system. The exhaust is vented through the roof of the container. (Image credit: Frank Rack/Northern Illinois University)

The casualty list from the government shutdown earlier this month continues to grow for U.S. Antarctic science.

On the kill list so far: the $10-million WISSARD drilling project, the first to discover microscopic life in a buried Antarctic lake; an expedition to look at how melting ice sheets change marine ecosystems; a study tracking the feeding habits of Antarctica's top predators, including penguins and killer whales; and a balloon experiment to search for gravity waves in cosmic microwave background radiation.

Scientists expect more losses this week, as the National Science Foundation (NSF) sorts itself out following the relaunch of Antarctic operations last Thursday (Oct. 17).

This month's government shutdown forced the NSF to slam the floodgates on the river of support staff, scientists and equipment streaming toward Antarctica for the summer research season. The result: a logistical nightmare, with people and essential supplies scattered across four continents.

After the NSF reopened, the agency said it would try to restore the research season, which lasts from October through February, but warned that some projects couldn't be saved. [17 Weirdest Effects of the Government Shutdown]

"[T]he 16-day interruption has already resulted in deferral of some projects, and additional projects will be impacted," Scott Borg, head of the Antarctic Sciences Section, wrote in a letter sent to scientists on Oct. 18.

"NSF decisions about priorities for restart are conditioned by factors such as continuity of long-term data sets, time-criticality of observations or studies, impacts on young or early career investigators, and international or interagency partnerships," Borg wrote.

At the University of Florida, good and bad news hit colleagues in the same department on Monday. Oceanographer Amelia Shevenell gets to board a plane Thursday for Antarctica, but her fellow professor, Kendra Daly, learned her project was called off for 2013, said Vickie Cachere, a university spokeswoman.

No drilling, baby

The cancellation was a crushing blow for the WISSARD team, but not wholly unexpected.

"They made the only logical decision," said Reed Scherer, a geologist at Northern Illinois University and one of the lead scientists on the drilling project. "It's deeply frustrating," Scherer added. "After all these years of development and a tremendous amount of money, we have very little to show for it."

The original plan for WISSARD's second season in Antarctica was to return to Lake Whillans (where the team left their equipment in storage containers), drill again at the lake, then caravan across the ice about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the ocean's edge. There, they would drill through the ice shelf. Then the sequester hit in March, and the group decided to only drill through the ice shelf, into the grounding line, where the massive Whillans Ice Sheet leaves bedrock and floats on the sea.

The drilling would have provided key information on ice sheet stability, Scherer said.

The shutdown left the team with no time for tractoring across the ice, let alone drilling. However, part of the WISSARD effort, a group from the University of California, Santa Cruz, did get the go-ahead to return to Antarctica, for a stripped-down geophysical survey at the grounding zone.

But the drilling equipment will stay buried under snow at Lake Whillans for at least another year. "We don't know if we're ever going to get it back," Scherer said. And the team's chief equipment designer, Northern Illinois University graduate student Tim Hodson, loses his years of investment in the project and must start again on a new doctoral thesis project, Scherer said. The senior scientists were invited to submit a new proposal to NSF, to request funding to return to Antarctica next year.

"I just wish there was a way we could get a guarantee and start planning that we can go forward next season. But there's a tremendous competition for the logistical resources, so we have no way of knowing whether we're going forward next year," Scherer told LiveScience.

"It's just, 'Write another proposal.' It's like, 'Thank you, sir. May I have another?'"

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Becky Oskin
Contributing Writer
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.