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Article updated: 10/10/2013 5:27 AM

NIU Antarctic study, Fermilab activities in jeopardy from federal shutdown

By Susan Sarkauskas

Last year at this time, Reed Scherer of Elburn was excited about his upcoming trip to Antarctica, where the Northern Illinois University professor would continue studying the ice shelf and the ocean beneath it.

This week, he is fuming and frustrated, as this year's journey is in danger of being canceled, throwing years of work into jeopardy.

The ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government is to blame. If it isn't resolved by Monday, the U.S. Antarctic Program has ordered the private contractor that handles the logistics of the operation to pull the plug on the season's work, he said.

"To choose the word 'dramatically' is potentially an understatement," Scherer said of the shutdown affecting his project.

The shutdown is affecting activity at Fermilab in Batavia, too. A Friday lecture will be postponed, for example, as the Fermilab Research Alliance is putting off nonessential spending until its federal funding is assured.

"We are trying to save as much money as possible," said Kurt Riesselmann, head of the laboratory's public information office.

Studying ice shelf

Geologist Scherer is the leader of the NIU team that includes fellow geology professor Ross Powell, two graduate students, an engineer and a videographer working on a documentary film. The team already lost two graduate students to the federal budget sequestration that started in the spring.

They are to leave after Christmas and stay at the Lake Whillans research station during the austral summer, until March.

They plan to again drill a hole a half-mile deep into the ice shelf. Last year, they collected water samples to study organisms living in the ocean beneath the shelf. This year, they were going to study the ground zone between the shelf and the ocean.

All of it is part of research into climate change. The study is due to finish in September 2014.

"This season's project is one that gets to the heart of the research," Scherer said.

Prep takes time

Getting people and equipment to the research station is a massive undertaking assigned to private contractor Lockheed-Martin. Much depends on the short austral summer.

Some of the equipment -- including winches, cranes, generators and the hot water drill used to obtain samples -- is stored there all year, is damaged by snow and cold, and has to be uncovered and repaired, Scherer said. Some of it belongs to NIU, and Scherer lamented that the equipment could be stuck there, unable to be used elsewhere.

The United States is not the only country studying in the Antarctic, but it has the largest program, Scherer said. Other countries rely on it.

Lockheed-Martin has already started sending some of its people home, Scherer said.

"This is not something you can just flip a switch on or off," he said.

Scherer is still working on tasks such as listing cargo to be shipped. There's no guarantee his project would be rescheduled for next year. The National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic Program, has protocols and rules about that, including whether funding can be reallocated to another year, he said.

Asked what he is doing this week to change the shutdown situation, Scherer joked about sending "logic rays" toward Washington, D.C.

"What can we do? Our hands are tied," he said.


If the partial shutdown of the federal government isn't resolved by noon Thursday, you won't be able to learn about "The Physics of Superheroes" at Fermilab.

Friday's lecture is part of the Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series. Public tours, which are given by on-call employees, are also canceled for now, Riesselmann said.

The laboratory is also putting off purchases of supplies, outside printing jobs, and outside Web page production and maintenance. That includes updating its Fermilab Today daily online bulletin.

"The idea is whatever we can minimize now," Riesselmann said, to stretch the alliance's reserve funds.

The federal government owns the laboratory but contracts with the alliance to run it. The support staff and many of the scientists working at Fermilab are employees of the research alliance. Some of the scientists are employees of universities throughout the world. And the Department of Energy's science office has an office at Fermilab, to oversee the contract.

Experiments are still being performed, Riesselmann said. The grounds are still open to people who want to visit the natural areas or the buffalo. The Lederman Science Center is still open, too.

But that could change, with little notice, if the federal government shutdown continues, he said. So visitors should check the laboratory's status on its website, www.fnal.gov, before coming out, he said.

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