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Facing a drought? Ecologist Scott Collins leads a long-term ecological project in southern New Mexico.

Sevilleta LTER program

For U.S. Ecologists, Shutdown Could Have Long-Term Effects

Nature doesn’t stand still. For scientists who keep tabs on important but constantly changing ecosystems, that fact looms large as the U.S. government shutdown continues.

Ecosystem studies often depend on extensive time-series data sets to tease out sometimes subtle shifts, and missing even a single field season can create unfillable gaps. Scientists are used to having peers pull the plug on their research as part of the merit review process, and they also know that some research interruptions are inevitable. But they’re bristling at the prospect of losing data as a side effect of an unrelated political brawl.

One casualty of the shutdown is a 23-year study based at Palmer Station in Antarctica that tracks how fluctuations in annual sea ice affect the polar biota, including the continent’s penguins. The project is led by Hugh Ducklow, a biological oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And this week the team, some of whom just arrived, learned that they would have to turn around and go home next week unless Congress resolves the spending showdown by Monday.

“In the past, bad weather might have meant we lost days or weeks of data,” Ducklow says. “But we’ve never had an entire year’s interruption.”

Ducklow’s study is one of 26 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). And although many LTER sites have sufficient money in the bank to operate despite the shutdown, they aren’t immune from the crisis.

Getting the cold shoulder

The Palmer LTER site, established in 1990, is on standby because of NSF’s decision this week to put all three U.S. Antarctic stations on caretaker status. The agency has no money to pay the contractor, Lockheed Martin, which provides logistical support to the stations.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Ducklow and his team, which studies how fluctuations in annual sea ice affect the polar biota, including the continent’s penguins. Several members showed up this week at the station after a 4-day transit of the Southern Ocean to prepare for the start of the penguins’ breeding season later this month. It’s a very dynamic situation: The native Adélie population crashed in the late 1990s and is down to about 2000 breeding pairs. At the same time, Gentoo penguins, a non-native species whose range has been expanded because of the warming temperatures at the pole, have become dominant.

The researchers would normally be getting ready for 5 months of fieldwork that includes observing the adult birds’ foraging behavior, recording nesting sites and the birth of chicks, and monitoring the offspring’s development. But instead, they have been frozen out: All of their equipment has gone into cold storage, and at press time they were scheduled to return to Chile via ship before flying backing home in the United States.

Ducklow’s research also involves a 5-week research cruise up and down the Antarctic Peninsula starting in early January that collects oceanographic data to correlate sea ice fluctuations with the birds’ breeding cycles. The cruise, which he’s done for 22 consecutive years, is on the U.S. research icebreaker Laurence M. Gould, the same ship that ferries scientists and supplies between Chile and Palmer. Of course, the Gould’s schedule will need to be rearranged after the shutdown ends, and it’s anybody’s guess whether Ducklow and his team will retain their place in the queue.

Being hung out to dry

Another shutdown victim is Scott Collins, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. His LTER project is based at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, which is now closed as a result of the shutdown.

Collins’s team is examining how climate variability affects this confluence of urban and arid biomes. Fall is also a very active time for the project, which since 1988 has tracked how flora and fauna fluctuate in response to rainfall, the region’s lifeblood. This summer’s monsoon season was 50% heavier than normal, and the deluge has triggered explosive growth in net primary production—or the total growth of plants and other organisms.

October is when his team would be out measuring that production—tallying the increase in biomass and doing a census of small mammals, among other things—so it could be compared with data from previous years taken in the same month. And timing is important, Collins says: “If we wait too long, the plants will have started dying, and the data will be goofy.”

One of Collins’s goals is to understand how climate variability affects the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. “We think it sucks in a bunch of carbon during a big wet year and then exhales it slowly,” he explains. “So the question is, ‘What would it take for the soil to accumulate carbon over time, rather than lose it all the next year?’  ”

But this year, Collins may not be able to collect data to help answer that question. “Closed means closed,” he’s been told by refuge managers, which translates into no access for researchers.

Location has become a major concern for several sites, says Collins, who is also chair of the science council that sets policy for the entire network. A total of 10 LTER sites are on land managed by federal agencies, he says, and each agency has its own response to the shutdown. For example, the Forest Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is allowing research to continue at five sites even though almost all of its employees have been furloughed, he notes. In contrast, scientists working at Sevilleta and a site in the Florida coastal Everglades, which is managed by the National Park Service, “have been kicked out.” Both are on lands owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Many LTER projects use automatic sensors and remote telemetry to collect some of their data. But sensors don’t obviate the need for humans to be onsite. Last month, for example, feral dogs hunted down and killed a Barbary sheep in an area of the Sevilleta site that houses a thermal heating installation. The savage nighttime attack uprooted several components and left a mess that researchers had to clean up. “You just never know what could go wrong,” Collins says, shaking his head. “And sensors need to be tweaked regularly.”

Political peer review

Collins and Ducklow don’t expect their projects to continue forever, of course. But they do expect that any decision to defund their research will be made by their peers, as part of a scientific assessment, rather than because of a partisan battle that has nothing to do with science.

Ecologist John Moore, who directs the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, is acutely aware of how gaps in a time series are a fact of scientific life. Three years ago, he lost funding for an LTER-based time series that goes back 30 years. “It’s never desirable to have gaps in our data,” he admits. “But I don’t think it’s an irrevocable loss.”

Moore is principal investigator for the Shortgrass Steppe (SGS) LTER site in northern Colorado, which NSF declined to renew in 2010. Since then, Moore says, he and his team have used close-out money “to prioritize what we can measure, and adjust our sampling schedules to fit our reduced resources.”

The loss of the SGS LTER “sent shock waves through the community,” Collins says, and Moore agrees that it was a major setback for the lab. But it hasn’t ended his research on rangelands ecosystems, work he began as a graduate student in zoology at CSU in 1982.

“I can guarantee you that everybody has had a gap in their data for some reason—a storm, a vacation, a temporary loss of funding, or whatever,” Moore says. “I’ve worked in the Arctic, and there have been times when I’ve brought back ice cores and found that the airline had left the cooler sitting on the tarmac, in 90° weather.”

“If people are honest with themselves,” he adds, “they will admit that it’s not the end of the world.”