Shutdown puts Antarctic trip at risk

By Keisha Howerth

The government shutdown has jeopardized the upcoming field season for the U.S. Antarctic Program, where geology professors Ross Powell and Reed Scherer were scheduled to lead a research expedition with two doctorate students.

The research project is funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation. If the shutdown continues through mid-October, the foundation will likely cancel the upcoming field season.

“I’ve been working at this for 30 years and have never experienced something like this,” Powell said.

This season’s expedition had already suffered its own cutbacks before the government shutdown. Student personnel had to be cut down, and the amount of time to be spent in Antarctica went from three-and-a-half months to a little more than a month.

The upcoming field season in Antarctica was going to be the second season for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, a project that focuses on the study of ice sheet stability and subglacial geobiology. Last year, Powell, Scherer and student Tim Hodson drilled through half a mile of ice to access a lake beneath the ice sheet to get a better understanding of ice sheet dynamics and climate change.

“Until scientists better understand them, it is difficult to predict how quickly the ice sheet will respond as the climate warms,” Hodson said.

This year, the research team was planning to travel downstream.

“This zone is actually an important ‘sticky spot’ that slows the flow of the ice,” Hodson said. “We really need to understand both the slippery spots and these sticky spots if we hope to understand the ice stream.”

The cancellation of the expedition would chop the team’s research in half.

“Each season was meant to complement each other,” Powell said.

Scherer said it’s not a likely possibility to go back next year and do what was planned for this season.

“The project would be done and we’d all be disappointed,” he said.

If the upcoming field season gets cancelled, students working on the project will have to put their time and effort into other programs.

“This research was to be the basis for my dissertation,” Hodson said. “I will likely have to start considering alternative projects.”

Powell and Scherer said they’re still trying to keep positive on things working out.

“We understand that we’re one small part of the affects of government gridlock,” Scherer said. “We just hope some sanity comes into the system because this is no way to run government.”