Government Shutdown Delays and Cancels Antarctic Research


By Tyler Wieland
Fall 2013

With a research season that only lasts from October to February, scientists and researchers must plan years in advance to take advantage of what little time they have to study in the polar region. But on October 1st, 2013 the United States Federal Government shut down, furloughing over 800,000 nonessential employees; over 1.3 million essential employees reported to work without knowing when they would be paid. Of the 800,000 employees furloughed, many were researchers and scientists at NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Effect on Operation IceBridge

Michael Studinger, the lead scientist for Operation IceBridge at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed. Operation IceBridge is an airborne mission that has monitored Antarctic and Arctic ice since 2009 when NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-I) stopped functioning. Its primary objective is to provide a continuous data record of ice sheet surface elevation changes, but IceBridge is also gathering data on other aspects, such as the shape of bedrock and water cavities beneath the polar ice.


Image 1: NASA’s P-3 aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Jim Yungel, NASA)

"The main purpose [of Operation IceBridge] is to measure the change in ice surface elevation over time,” Studinger said. “And this allows us to estimate how much ice an ice sheet is gaining or losing.” This ice sheet mass loss is important to understanding how much melting ice will contribute to sea level rise.

The program, which uses radars and other remote sensing equipment developed by CReSIS scientists to study polar ice, was left in limbo during the furlough. According to Studinger, IceBridgewas forced to wait to install key equipment on the P-3 airborne research lab, which is necessary for studying the polar ice and equipping the plane for the Antarctic trip that was scheduled for later in October.

For CReSIS, the fact that Operation IceBridge was on hold meant that key days of data collection were lost. The unpredictability of Antarctic weather only compounded the issue.

Sea ice

Image 2: Sea ice and icebergs in Sulzberger Bay, Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Image courtesy of Michael Studinger)

According to Professor David Braaten, Associate Director of Science at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), “Not having as many days makes it more risky for everything.” “If we got 70 to 80 percent [of the data we wanted] that would be really, really good.”

Due to the shutdown, Studinger anticipated that IceBridge would "collect considerably less science data than we had planned for,"However, the program was fairly unscathed compared to many other projects that were completely shelved or cancelled this season.

“Caretaker Status”

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) was hit especially hard when McMurdo Station in Antarctica was forced into “caretaker status.” Only personnel essential to maintaining life and property were to remain. An October 28th news release by NSF exposed just how much Antarctic research would be affected this season – 28 of the 77 operations that were scheduled at McMurdo Station were cancelled, and other projects were reduced or modified.

McMurdo Station

Image 3: McMurdo Station seen from the summit of Observation Hill. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Antarctic Program)

"The government shutdown came at the worst time for Antarctic research,” Braaten said.

The government shutdown, which lasted from October 1 through October 16, 2013, was the third longest on record.

Results from the IceBridge Mission

Despite the shutdown, the Antarctic mission was recently completed, and teams of scientists at CReSIS, NASA and other institutions across the U.S. and the world will begin the long process of analyzing the data collected from various devices as the aircraft flew over Antarctica’s ice.

“The CReSIS radar images reveal[ed] some stunning features close to the bed that have never been seen before,” said Studinger.

Ice Layering

Image 4: Image showing ice surface, internal layering and bedrock (jagged line at bottom of image) in thick ice between Dome C and Vostok. Data gathered by the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder during IceBridge’s Nov. 27, 2013 survey flight. (Image courtesy of Theresa Stumpf, CReSIS)

The modified mission was given seven days to collect data; with two days of weather cancelations, five missions were completed overall. According to Studinger, the two days of cancelled flights were due to strong cross winds on the sea ice runway at the U.S. McMurdo Base. Despite the many obstacles the mission faced from residual effects of the government shutdown and weather delays, a successful collection of a wide range of science targets from sea ice to targets deep in the interior of Antarctica were completed.

During the five dedicated missions from McMurdo over 20,000 km of scientific data was collected from the airborne laboratory and a total of 43 hours were logged, reported Studinger.

Following the completion of the IceBridge mission, Studinger said, “I am extremely grateful for NSF and the USAP for getting McMurdo back into operation so quickly after the government shutdown and allowing us to have a shortened deployment.”

“It was impressive to see how hard everyone worked and what a well-oiled machine the US Antarctic Program is. Decades of USAP experience, dedication and skill have saved our deployment.”

(Contributions from the University Daily Kansan)