US government shutdown could reach as far as Antarctica

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Marco Werman: We turn to the government shutdown now entering its second week. If it goes on much longer it could spell trouble for American scientists who would normally be heading to Antarctica this time of year. October is usually the start of a new research season near the South Pole. Hugh Ducklow directs long-term ecological research at Palmer Station - one of three US research stations on the Antarctic peninsula. The headline of Scientific American, Hugh, says it all. "The Government Shutdown May Force Evacuations of US Research Stations". How much does this have scientists on edge right now?

Hugh Ducklow: Everybody is really on edge right now, Marco. Part of it is because of the uncertainty. Nobody knows what's happening or what's going to happen. We haven't heard anything from the National Science Foundation because they are part of the government and they are furloughed right now.

Werman: And the National Science Foundation has a lot to do with your work down there at Palmer Station I gather.

Ducklow: The National Science Foundation basically directs all aspects of the United States research present in Antarctica and so we're kind of waiting to see what's gonna happen.

Werman: Isn't the research season just getting underway though? I mean I just read that your team of researchers left on a ship Punta Arenas, Chile headed for Palmer Station. So what do they do when they get there and everything is shut down?

Ducklow: We'll find out tomorrow. Yeah, I mean it's a good time. The boat left the dock to cross the direct passage to go over to Palmer Station on Friday and they are on schedule to arrive tomorrow. So at this point everything is continuing as planned, but we just have lots of uncertainty about what's gonna happen when they get there.

Werman: I mean I can hear some listeners going, "This isn't clinical trials for some miraculous cancer drug. We're talking like a penguin webcam here." But take us to the long-term climate research. What could be affected?

Ducklow: Right. I mean you're right. There's nothing life-threatening about our work being postponed, but it would have some devastating implications that research, in our case, that has been going on for over twenty years, and our focus is studying the response of various aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem to rapid climate change. The region that we work in which is the Antarctic Peninsula, it's the little part of the Antarctic which sticks out toward South America, is undergoing some of the most rapid climate warming on earth today and the ecosystem is responding at all levels from plants at the bottom of the food chain all the way up to penguins, seals, and whales. So we've been doing that research, you might say, "Well, you've got twenty years of work, so you miss a little bit," but the way it works is that these timed series of observations, if you have interruptions or breaks in the record, you just lose a lot of the scientific value in the record. So a disruption could just be devastating for the work we've been doing.

Werman: Is a debate on climate change still so toxic as well that you worry that a gap in data might actually be ammunition for the deniers?

Ducklow: A gap in data would certainly allow them to say, "They don't know what they're talking about," that we don't know what we're talking about. But that's a minor concern compared to our people who are down there and waiting to get started and seeing if they're gonna have to evacuate or how we would even deal with a break in the record ourselves. For every day that this goes on or if the US work is postponed or discontinued for some period of time, it just takes away from US credibility and presence on the continent.

Werman: And I'm just curious, this coming research season, what you were like really looking forward too? Any kind of great light bulbs that might have gone off?

Ducklow: So as a result of the past several decades of climate chance, we're looking at the local extinction of penguin population in our region. We're really at the point where some of these penguin populations, where they could flicker out of existence almost any time and so we just can't afford to miss anything.

Werman: Now, the new long-term ecological research website is talking about Penguin Cam, a new live Penguin Cam.

Ducklow: Yeah.

Werman: What's in offer there? What do we see?

Ducklow: The camera is, well, it isn't up right now. They're waiting to get it set up for this season. The camera is sited right in the middle of a colony of Adélie Penguins. What you see on the camera is penguins going about their daily life. They are going to be arriving in the next couple of weeks. They start to build nests, they start to for mates, they get busy breeding and laying eggs and raising chicks, and on the penguin cam you can see all of that going on.

Werman: Hopefully you'll be able to do your research. Hugh Ducklow, an ecologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory just outside New York City. He directs long-term ecological research at Palmer Station in Antarctica. Hugh, thanks a lot.

Ducklow: Thank you, Marco. Thanks a lot.