Government shutdown couldn’t keep UC Santa Cruz researchers from Antarctica

The WISSARD team

The WISSARD scientists (from left to right) Top row: Dan Sampson, Grace Barcheck, Matt Siegfried, Slawek Tulaczyk, Neil Foley. Bottom row: Susan Schwartz, Carolyn Branecky [credit: Chad Carpenter]

On Oct. 8, 2013, Carolyn Branecky received news no Ph.D. student ever wants to hear: her research project could be pushed back a year, or worse. The U.S. government had shut down a week earlier, and federally funded research was put on hold until Congress voted on a budget.

Less than a month before that, Branecky, a bright-smiled Wisconsinite, had enrolled at UC Santa Cruz to join WISSARD, a massive NSF-funded study on Antarctica. The WISSARD project made headlines in early 2013 when it uncovered microbial life in subglacial Lake Whillans, a thin body of water trapped underneath half a mile of ice. The team was the first to drill into an Antarctic subglacial lake without raising suspicion of contamination. The season beginning in December 2013 was slated to be the final year of fieldwork, involving more drilling and the retrieval of monitoring equipment installed the year before.

But with no end in sight to the shutdown, and work forbidden for federal employees, logistics planning for the 38-member mission was on hold. Gear couldn’t be ordered, landing strips couldn’t be created, and transportation to the remote field area couldn’t be arranged. The field season was nearing the chopping block. “At the minimum, everything was going to be delayed,” Branecky said.

A little over a week later, the shutdown ended. But because of WISSARD’s time sensitivity, the damage was done: the project’s main focus, drilling deep into Antarctic ice, would have to wait another year—and scientists from nine research institutions would have to sit on their hands in the meantime. It was a huge letdown. “Projects like this don’t come together that quickly,” Branecky said.

But Branecky received good news after all: her share of the project was straightforward enough to carry on. She, her advisor, and six other UCSC researchers were tasked with investigating the behavior of ice at the Whillans Ice Stream, a glacial feature overlying Lake Whillans. The eight-member subgroup—less than a quarter of the full WISSARD team—would still make the long trek to the bottom of the world. In just two weeks, Branecky and her classmates had been upgraded from grad students to ambassadors for one of the most vital studies taking place in Antarctica.

Bulldozing snow for hot water

The team obtained hot water by bulldozing snow into tubs to be heated. [credit: Chad Carpenter]

After flying in from New Zealand in early December, Branecky and her colleagues began the expedition by gathering supplies at McMurdo Station, a U.S.-owned research base with a typical summer population of roughly 1000. According to station archives, the 2013-2014 tally was closer to 800, owing to many other projects being postponed or cancelled due to the shutdown. “Everyone commented on how quiet the station was this year, relative to past seasons,” Branecky said. “There was this feeling like ‘we are the chosen few.’”

After a 3-hour flight into the interior of the continent, Branecky’s team touched down at the flat, whitewashed Whillans Ice Stream. During the next five weeks, they buried GPS units and seismometers to monitor the groaning, creaking and creeping of ice as it flowed under its own weight.

For the WISSARD team, location is crucial: the Whillans site is perched near the Ross Ice Shelf, a France-sized roof of ice hanging over the ocean. This allows researchers to observe ice overlying the ocean only a short distance away from ice overlying an inland lake. Together, said Branecky, these observations will reveal how land, thin bodies of water and dynamic oceans influence the ice above them—an important issue in coming years. “My driving motivation is to better understand how the ice sheet is going to respond to climate change and sealevel rise into the future,” said Branecky.

Borehole geophysics

Branecky and Dan Sampson lower scientific instruments into a borehole. [credit: Chad Carpenter]

She found her first trip to Antarctica both enchanting and challenging. Nearly-24-hour sunlight revealed an endless stretch of white in one direction and, in the other, the jagged peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains. Temperatures hovered around freezing as she dug, drilled, and Ski-Dooed around the site. Branecky said the group’s only companions were seagulls.

Meals consisted primarily of—no surprises here—frozen food. And candy. Lots of candy. “I probably ate more chocolate bars in those 2 months than I’ve eaten in my entire life,” said Branecky.

The experience was so intense that she needed time to acclimate to the world of colors and sounds. While stopping off in New Zealand, Branecky said, “it was a mix of ‘wow, I’m so tired,’ with ‘wow, all this greenery, the sound of insects.”

After a year of planning, Branecky leaves today for her second and final field season on the ice. She’s excited to be a part of a bigger research team and fully staffed camp. “I’m really looking forward to feeding off of other people’s excitement about the project,” she said.

But after last year’s fiasco, the seeds of doubt have been planted: when partisan politics are involved, some decisions are simply out of NSF’s control. Even when the NSF commits to funding a project, Branecky said, “Now it calls into question whether that’s really a guarantee.”

Freezing temperatures, round-the-clock daylight, and few signs of life: that’s a harsh climate. But an uncertain political climate may be even harsher.

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