On ice: US government impasse halts climate research and policy
- 16 Oct 2013, 16:00
- Ros Donald
The US government shutdown appears to be drawing to an end. But
the stalemate in Congress has seen many of the US's efforts to
understand, measure and mitigate climate change stall, and the
effects could stretch out long after politicians and federal staff
have gone back to work.
The shutdown's effect on climate science in the US has been wide
ranging. The US Antarctic Program is in caretaker mode. NASA -
which shut down on its 55th birthday - is currently operating at
three per cent capacity. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Association (NOAA), which monitors oceans, the atmosphere and
extreme weather, is 55 per cent shut down.
US climate policy has also been paused. The US Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) - which gathers data and enforces
regulation to tackle pollution - and Department of Energy are
operating at a much reduced capacity.
One of the biggest issues for government scientists affected by
the two week shutdown is continuity of measurements.
Some of the datasets scientists are collecting stretch back for
decades. Any further budget uncertainty or break in funding could
mean gaps in these banks of information.
Richard Jeong, a researcher at the McMurdo station in Antarctica,
wrote a petition to Congress to ensure research in Antarctica
doesn't lose its funding. He writes on the campaign website
Change.org about the effect that suspending the programme could
ruin long term projects:
"The effects this shutdown will be the
loss of continuity in projects that have been ongoing since the
International Geophysical Year some 50 years ago. Scientific
data such as the Long-Term Ecological Research which has been
ongoing for 30 years will have a large data gap in at a crucial
time in our understanding of climate change. A similar problem
would be the abrupt end to 11 years of continuous data on the solar
cycle that is used, for example, by the UC Boulder Lidar project.
Since solar cycles are 11 years long, missing this last critical
bit of data could jeopardize the multi-year investment. Also
threatened is our understanding of rapidly changing ecosystems that
is being generated by the study of Penguins in the Palmer
Loss of data on a whole range of climate-related research
subjects, from bird migration to plant experiments, will also
affect knowledge of how the world is responding to warming,
The hashtag #shutscience on Twitter yields a wealth of scientists'
stories and concerns, from wasted funds, to the frustration of
being unable to communicate with collaborators, to the prospect of
waiting out a month without pay.
It's not just government scientists who are seeing their work
disrupted - plenty of other work depends on US research or
government grant decisions.
Jonathan Lilly is an oceanographer who has been collecting
researchers' stories to draw attention to the problems associated
with the shutdown for climate science. He tells Carbon Brief:
"There's an outer ring of consequences.
Other people depend on the people who are furloughed, and the
furloughed people can't talk. It's illegal. There is a big traffic
jam, especially in international collaboration".
Not only are research projects on hold, scientists are legally
barred from "conducting public business" while the shutdown is in
operation, as Wired points out. Scientists we have contacted said
they are afraid to lose their jobs if they carry on with work
during the shutdown. According to the law, no federal employee is
able to work or talk about their work. This has clouded many
projects in uncertainty - for the government scientists, their
collaborators, and anyone else who might need their data.
The shutdown might have impacted the US's ability to react to
things like extreme weather events. For example, while the National
Weather Service is still producing forecasts, many of the
specialists who track how tropical storms evolve are at home, Lilly
says in a blog post.
One scientist at a federal oceanographic laboratory monitoring
weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico contacted Lilly to express
his concern that if an extreme event like a hurricane should arise,
the weather service may not be able to count on data from satellite
measurements. Lilly tells Carbon Brief:
"The people behind the scenes who have
helped to build the understanding, many of them are not essential.
And some of the crucial data streams going into the severe
weather prediction models, these are coming from satellites, and
the data streams are not being monitored. You need to have
experienced people looking at the data and catching any potential
problems, which they do on a day-to-day basis."
Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological
Society, wrote yesterday that the shutdown is also harming attempts
at outreach. Since half of NOAA's employees have been sent home,
the agency's WeatherReady Nation programme, which is designed to
help people prepare for extreme events like last year's Superstorm
Sandy, has been shuttered. Shepherd points out that while science
outreach might not seem essential, knowing what to do to prepare
for events like hurricanes can save lives.
The shutdown of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also
means that the government's plans to use regulation to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions are on hold.
Around 94 per cent of the EPA's employees have been on leave of
absence since the shutdown was announced, save emergency staff who
deal with risks such as chemical spills. The suspension of
operations could set back the agency's work to limit carbon
emissions from power plants and cars, the Guardian writes. It
was set to bring in new rules on biofuels and tougher punishments
for polluters, but the shutdown is delaying such measures.
Meanwhile, only 30 per cent of the employees at the Department of
Energy, which conducts research and manages energy efficiency
programmes, are at work.
One thing that seems to have scientists most worried when it comes
to climate science is the prospect of losing a season's worth of
data from the Antarctic. One scientist tells us: "Antarctic
research is completely devastated".
The US National Science Foundation announced last week its three
Antarctic research bases will go into 'caretaker mode', with all
but a skeleton staff staying on. The worry has been that
researchers might miss all of the Antarctic summer research season
- the three-month window scientists must cram most of their
research efforts into. Researchers have also faced the prospect of
being sent home.
While other countries have their own well respected operations on
the continent, the loss of specific data risks disrupting an
interdependent web of climate research that has built up in the
region. As Lilly points out, for example, seal pups won't be tagged
this year, meaning information crucial to understanding the health
of the Antarctic ecosystem will be lost. Shipments of instruments
over to Antarctica to measure the ice sheet are in limbo.
Lilly quotes scientific diver, Henry Kaiser:
"There are essential climate studies,
essential ocean studies going on down there. These are multi-year
studies, so if you lose a year, that's it, the study could be
The shutdown may only last a few more hours or days, but its
consequences for climate science and policy could stretch much
further into the future.