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updated: 11/10/2014 5:07 AM

Back to Antarctica, a little delayed, for NIU scientists

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  • Northern Illinois University professor Ross Powell of Elburn, with a winch used for operating equipment to study underneath an ice shelf in Antarctica in 2013.

    Northern Illinois University professor Ross Powell of Elburn, with a winch used for operating equipment to study underneath an ice shelf in Antarctica in 2013.
    courtesy of Northern Illinois University

  • Reed Scherer of Elburn is one of two Northern Illinois University professors returning to study Antarctica this winter.

    Reed Scherer of Elburn is one of two Northern Illinois University professors returning to study Antarctica this winter.
    courtesy of Northern Illinois University

  • Researchers from NIU will return to Antarctica this year to study what is underneath its ice shelves and sheets. Here, a drill is used during the 2013 expedition, postponed during the federal government shutdown.

    Researchers from NIU will return to Antarctica this year to study what is underneath its ice shelves and sheets. Here, a drill is used during the 2013 expedition, postponed during the federal government shutdown.
    courtesy of Northern Illinois University

  • Video: What they are studying

 
 

Two days. Two stinkin' days.

If federal officials had been able to resolve their budget conflict and end the 2013 partial government shutdown two days earlier, Reed Scherer and Ross Powell of Elburn could have finished a five-year study of what is underneath the ice shelves and sheets of Antarctica on time.

Instead they spent the winter at home, worried that their work would lose its funding and personnel.

"We were totally frustrated," Powell said.

But this fall, they are smiling. Because they are packing for Antarctica. The project is back on.

The work

Scherer and Powell are professors in the geology department at Northern Illinois University.

They have been studying Lake Whillans, under an ice shelf in Western Antarctica; now, they are going to take a look at the ground zone under the Ross Ice Sheet, about 70 miles away.

Powell's goal is to learn about the rate of demise of Antarctic ice sheets, and how that would affect the climate. Scherer was particularly interested in what, if any, organisms could be found in the lakes and streams under ice shelves.

It's all being studied as part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Drilling Project, also called the WISSARD Project.

Shutdown's cost

Money got in the way of learning last year.

When Congress and the president were unable to agree on a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government, a partial shutdown was declared in early October. It affected all sorts of nonessential operations. The WISSARD Project, run by the National Science Foundation, was one of them.

The timing could not have been much worse.

It came as workers, including private contractors from Lockheed-Martin, were preparing to move the project's equipment and personnel into place, a process that takes months to plan and execute due to the extreme climate.

"There is a huge bottleneck in getting people and equipment down to Antarctica," Powell said.

There are an average of three flights a week from New Zealand to McMurdo Station in Antarctica at that time of year, he said. Big equipment has to be shipped in to McMurdo, and the shipping season only last a few weeks during the Southern Hemisphere's summer. So scientists ship equipment in one year, to use it the next year, Powell said.

From McMurdo, drillers and equipment operators slowly truck the big equipment more than 600 miles over ice to the research sites. They check it for damage, do repairs and set things up. Trailers for personnel to work and eat in also arrive by truck.

When the project was halted last October, workers and equipment were pulled back, Powell said, so he ended up spending Christmas at home with his wife and teenage children. And, ironically, experiencing colder temperatures here in January than those in Antarctica.

No savings

The delay added about $1 million to the cost of the project, Powell said. The federal government still had to pay its contracts, including those of the graduate students on the project (they wrote up results and did other work in the meantime, Powell said.) One of his technicians, a doctoral student, chose to go work for Stanford University instead.

"The main impact has been on the students," Powell said. "They basically have to extend their research."

The delay won't affect the scientific merit of their work, he said.

This year, they will drill in a different spot, send cameras down to examine the ground zone between the Ross Ice Shelf and the water, and take samples.

"We hope that we can get exciting new information even though there is (a year) separation from the last batch," he said.

Powell and other scientists will fly south late next month. They pick up required gear and undergo mandatory safety training in New Zealand, then fly in to McMurdo. From there, they fly to the research base. Powell will return to the U.S. in early February.

The team will get only eight "science days" this time around, not its usual three weeks' worth. Other projects already scheduled for this season two years ago.

"They (the National Science Foundation) are trying to squeeze us in to a program already established," Powell said.

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