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Antarctic research plans on ice

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Yesterday the Journal-World took a look at how the federal government shutdown was hitting home in Lawrence.

Up on the hill, most research at Kansas University will continue as normal for now, though there is concern about the funding, review and submission of future projects tied to federal agencies if the shutdown continues, said Kevin Boatright, director of communications for the KU Office of Research and Graduate Studies.

But one area of research, several thousand miles south of campus, is in limbo right now. The National Science Foundation announced Tuesday that when its funding runs out on Oct. 14, it will cut most of its staffing at Antarctic research stations, including McMurdo Station, a critical hub of logistical support for most scientific fieldwork in the Antarctic.

That could delay or even upend a handful of KU projects in Antarctica that were — until now —slated to begin in the coming weeks.

KU's Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, or CReSIS, had two projects planned for Antarctica for the season, one of them a collaboration with NASA, another agency facing furloughs and near-full shutdown.

David Braaten, a KU professor of atmospheric science and deputy director of CReSIS, learned the projects could be in jeopardy when the National Science Foundation posted a notice about shutting down its Antarctic Program.

"The sad part is we hear bits and pieces of information and kind of assume the worst, but we really don't know," Braaten said.

Thomas N. Taylor, a KU professor of paleobiology, is also part of a team with plans for an Antarctic voyage this fall, in this case to collect fossils from the region to study the effects of climate change over time. Taylor also found out from the science foundation's website that his project could be stalled by the government shutdown. "We'd spent so much time getting everything and everybody set," Taylor said. "I just didn't think about the potential of (the shutdown) affecting us."

Even if a shutdown of McMurdo is short-lived, it could reverberate throughout the research season. More than 1,000 researchers worldwide depend on McMurdo and other government support operations in Antarctica. If an entire season is lost or even delayed, projects can't easily be rescheduled, Taylor said. That’s because so many scientific projects in Antarctica depend on government resources, such as helicopters to deploy them in remote areas of the continent, which are relatively limited even without a federal shutdown.

Taylor, Brataan and their colleagues are watching and waiting to see what, if anything, happens next.

At the moment, the situation is "not necessarily a disaster," Taylor said. "The two trains are rushing toward each other right now, but they haven't collided yet."

If the federal shutdown has you feeling cold and alone, send your woes and KU news tips to bunglesbee@ljworld.com

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