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In wake of shutdown, NIU Antarctic project in jeopardy

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 7:39 a.m. CDT
(Photo courtesy of Northern Illinois University)
Ross Powell (left) and fellow Northern Illinois University geologist Reed Scherer recover sediment from a sub-glacial lake bed during last season's Antarctic expedition.

DeKALB – After a decade of planning and discovering bacterial life living in dark, frigid water beneath an ice shelf, students and staff at Northern Illinois University will not be able to finish their final year of research in the Antarctic.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project is headed by Northern Illinois University geology professors Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, along with two doctoral students. They were set to depart for Antarctica after Christmas. Professors and students from 13 other universities were also part of the research project.

This year, they had planned to drill a half-mile through the ice to investigate rivers and lakes that are flowing underneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“This is something we are concerned with because that system controls how fast ice moves into the oceans, melts and affects the rising sea level,” Powell said.

Funded with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the government shutdown came during a critical time for the project. When the shutdown went into effect, the National Science Foundation went into what is called “caretaker mode.” The only initiatives they were able to fund were those related to life safety or property maintenance. Foundation employees and other scientists already in Antarctica were laid off, and others were sent home to wait out the shutdown.

Now that the government is up and running, it has created what Powell referred to as a “bottleneck.” The harsh weather limits the months that researchers can be there, and there are a limited number of planes (about three flights a week) to carry scientists and their gear from New Zealand to Antarctica. There are too many people and too much gear to allow everyone and everything to get there.

“Now our containers will have to stay for another winter with no guarantee that it will be used in the future, despite the millions [of dollars] in investment,” said Scherer.

Powell hopes to be able to reschedule the research for the next year, but it would involve getting more funding and permission from the National Science Foundation. 

The student researchers who are in the midst of completing their degrees will be delayed an additional year, and professors who are seeking tenure, which often requires completing academic research, will be facing major setbacks.

The university Office of the President and the Office of Research informed local legislators that it was likely the project would have to be cancelled if the government shutdown continued through mid-October.

In statements given Monday, both U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, and U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, said they were opposed to the lapse of federal funding for such scientific research projects. However, only Kinzinger voted in support of the budget deal.

“Rep. Hultgren has been a leader in pushing for long-term funding for science to ensure projects like these do not get derailed when Congress fails to use the regular appropriations process to fund the government,” said Jameson Cunningham, communications director for Hultrgren. “Governing by crisis and last-minute band-aids is unacceptable, and in many cases scientific research sustains the collateral damage.”

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