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The government shutdown impacted global research and education.

Climate researchers rebound from government shutdown but setbacks linger

by Anna Bisaro
Oct 17, 2013


Anna Bisano/MEDILL

Glaciologist Brenda Hall (left) said the government shutdown could jeopardize her team's field research in Antarctica this year.

Before the government reopened Wednesday evening, the shutdown weighed heavily on scientists gathered in southern Wisconsin earlier this week for the annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.

Glaciologist Brenda Hall of the University of Maine has traveled to Antarctica every year for the last 24 years. Hall’s research in there analyzes how the melting ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels.

Despite the temporary government shutdown this month, she is still scheduled to go with students to the continent during the last week in November. But the trip may not pan out due to delays already caused by it, she said Tuesday.

“It’s just a mess,” Hall said. “It’s just a mess.”

Hall teaches glaciology and ice age studies and said many of her students’ research has been placed on hold because of the shutdown. If the current research project in Antarctica is postponed this year and the fieldwork pushed to next year, the two-year project could run out of funding, she said.

The field season in Antarctica runs from November to February. Unfortunately, due to teaching schedules and coordinating with other scientists, she and her students cannot go to Antarctica just any time during that period if she loses her window of opportunity.

Many professors, students and researchers alike delayed activities such as fieldwork and applications for more funding from the National Science Foundation after the partial government shutdown took effect Oct. 1. Others, who already completed their fieldwork projects, still wait for data to be processed at places such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Jennifer Lennon, a master’s student at the University of Maine and an advisee of Hall, does not work in Antarctica, but said her research has also been delayed by the shutdown. She has a host of beryllium-10 samples waiting to be dated in Lawrence Livermore. The finalization of her master’s thesis depends on that data.

Lennon is dating the age of a moraine located in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Beryllium-10 is an isotope generated when cosmic rays strike bedrock. The dating of these isotopes is similar to carbon-14 dating of organisms as in it can provide an approximate age for something, in this case, when the rock was exposed to air because of a receding glacier.

On her last excursion to Patagonia in March, Lennon took several rock samples, which she then processed back in Maine for three months. In July the samples were sent to Lawrence Livermore but other research took priority and she still had not received the dating of her samples she needed at the time of the shutdown. She said if she still has low-priority status when the lab reopens, it will be a long time before she receives her data.

“It may extent my period as a grad student, but hopefully I’ll still finish on time," she said.

Lennon said reopening the lab, because it is a high security facility, may take a couple weeks for screening to return to full operations.

Toby Koffman, a PhD student at the University of Maine, is also waiting for data from Lawrence Livermore. Koffman. He canceled his upcoming trip to the California lab and hopes he will not have to wait too much longer for the beryllium-10 samples he submitted for his research are dated. Koffman conducts research on glaciation in New Zealand. He said he wants to defend his dissertation in the spring, but realizes he may be very rushed if he does not get the data soon.

“It’s an important facility far beyond the scope of my work,” Koffman said.

Richard Alley, climate scientist and professor at Penn State University, emceed the conference. He said the shutdown made teaching very difficult because government websites, abundant with data and maps, were unavailable to his students who are not heading out on field excursions. Overall, he said, the shutdown hurts students.

“The thirst for knowledge is being blocked because their [the government] house is not in order,” he said Tuesday.