Last Friday, Sebastian Vivancos embarked on the journey of a lifetime: He was headed to Antarctica.
In Punta Arenas, Chile, Vivancos, a recent graduate of Columbia University, boarded the Laurence M. Gould, an icebreaker that would take him and others across the Drake Passage and to the National Science Foundation's Palmer Station.
"The trip across was incredible," Vivancos wrote in an email. "The wind howls incessantly, the huge waves crash against the side of the ship rocking it back and forth."
Vivancos, who plans to start a doctoral program in the geosciences next year, was going to stay in Antarctica six months, while he and other scientists, part of the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research program, collected data on ocean chemistry and biology.
But on the day they arrived, he and other researchers were told they would have to turn around and go home.
"The station manager officially notified us that Palmer Station had been put on caretaker status since there was no official budget, which meant no money had been appropriated to conduct our research. Hence, there was no science to be done," Vivancos said.
The National Science Foundation announced Tuesday that it was putting its three Antarctic research bases in caretaker mode, with only skeleton crews remaining to maintain the stations.
Researchers at the station could hardly believe what they were hearing, Vivancos said. "This had never happened before -- it not only affects our livelihood in economic terms but the driving purpose of these scientists' lives."
Now, he continued, "everyone is preparing to leave, packing so that everything is ready to be shipped back. The word to best describe the mood is 'uncertain,' kind of like being held hostage."
Research refugees ponder options
Antarctic researchers in the United States who had been readying for their field season are now scrambling, trying to make alternate plans for what research they might be able to accomplish once the shutdown ends.
"We are just trying to come up with all sorts of plans, a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C," said Diana Wall, a soil scientist at Colorado State University who is part of a team that conducts long-term ecological research in Antarctica's dry valleys.
The group of researchers Wall works with were planning to meet yesterday and today in Boulder, Colo., to come up with several contingency plans for the research season.
As Wall and others described it, scientists whose field seasons are affected by the shutdown are only in sporadic communication with the few employees of the National Science Foundation who are not furloughed, like Scott Borg, who heads the Antarctic science portion of the NSF's polar program.
Many affected researchers are gleaning much of their news from contractors and from other media reports. Right now, the only thing they can do is make backup plan after backup plan.
"If there is a chance, say next week, they say, 'All of you can't go, but you can go and do XYZ.' We need to come back with, 'This is our first priority, this is our second priority, this is the data that can't be missed,'" Wall said.
The impacts to climate research, which relies on continuous series of data, could be significant.
Data gaps being created
Hugh Ducklow, a professor and biological oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, heads up the long-term research program at Palmer Station.
Researchers have 22 years of continuous observations from that site, which include measurements of ocean chemistry and biology. An unbroken series of observations on Adélie penguins, which in that region have experienced population crashes as sea ice disappears, goes back to the mid-1970s, Ducklow said.