NIU arctic program in jeopardy
DeKALB – After a decade of planning and discovering bacterial life living in dark, frigid water beneath an ice shelf, students and staff at Northern Illinois University will not be able to finish their final year of research in the Antarctic.
The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project is headed by Northern Illinois University geology professors Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, along with two doctoral students. They were set to depart for Antarctica after Christmas. Professors and students from 13 other universities were also part of the research project.
This year, they had planned to drill a half-mile through the ice to investigate rivers and lakes that are flowing underneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Funded with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, when the government shutdown went into effect, the National Science Foundation went into what is called “caretaker mode” where the only initiatives funded were those related to life safety or property maintenance.
Now that the government is open, it has created what Powell referred to as a “bottleneck.” The harsh weather limits the months that researchers can be there, and there are a limited number of planes to carry scientists and their gear from New Zealand to Antarctica. There are too many people and too much gear to allow everyone and everything to get there.
“Now our containers will have to stay for another winter with no guarantee that it will be used in the future, despite the millions [of dollars] in investment,” Scherer said.
In a statement given Monday, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, said he opposed the lapse of federal funding for such scientific research projects.
Powell hopes to be able to reschedule the research for the next year, but it would involve getting more funding and permission from the National Science Foundation.
The student researchers who are in the midst of completing their degrees will be delayed an additional year, and professors seeking tenure will be facing major setbacks.