Antarctica Research Stalls After U.S. Government Shutdown

Adelie Penguins. Photo_ Colin Mitchell

Federally funded researchers and scientists have breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. government ended its shutdown last week. But after a fifteen day hiatus, not everyone is in the clear, and for scientists working further afield the repercussions may continue to be felt.

For Point Blue Conservation Science, a California based conservation science non-profit, the shutdown has threatened to cancel their annual research trip to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, where they have been studying Adélie Penguins since 1972.

Grant Ballard, the Director of Point Blue’s Climate Change and Informatics group, said he is hopeful the trip will go ahead, but so far there has been little news.

“Basically all they’re saying is they’re hoping to restore as much of the science as possible,” he said. “Because our program wasn't scheduled to start until November, I’m hoping that we won't be impacted mostly because we don't require a lot of logistical support.”

Each year Ballard travels to the Ross Sea with a team of researchers to investigate how Adélie Penguins cope with large changes to their environment, such as those brought about by climate change.

Dubbed by David G. Ainley, the renowned penguin expert, as the “bellwether of climate change,” Adélie penguins serve as a tool for monitoring the varying impacts of global warming on the Antarctic environment. Because of their population size, wide distribution and dependence on sea ice, Ballard said they are arguably one of the the best Antarctic species to study. “They sort of serve as sentinels of the Antarctic ocean environment,” he said.

Due to the availability of long-term data, Ballard and his team have been able to study the causes behind penguin population trends, and in the short-term, Adélies are winning.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Adélie penguin colonies began expanding rapidly across the Ross Sea. It seemed that the smallest colonies were growing quickly, while the largest remained somewhat stable. According to Ballard, this led researchers to believe that the colony had perhaps reached its ecological limit.

“That raised the hypothetical question: what is the maximum population size of any animal, especially one in a pristine ecosystem?,” Ballard said. “And we had years of data, completely intact, so we thought we’d be able to get some insight into how these things work.”

“But recently, the largest colonies started once again growing really fast.”

One of the possible reasons behind this relates to the Antarctic environment, or more specifically: the sea ice. Globally, the amount of sea ice is changing, and in both the Arctic and Antarctic peninsula, it is quickly vanishing. But in the Ross Sea, the winter season—during which time the ice expands in size—has been getting longer, meaning good news for the ice-loving Adélie penguins.

“The season is incredibly dynamic and in the last 30 years has increased by 89 days, so it’s potentially a three month longer ice growing season than it was in the 1980s,” Ballard said. “That’s the exact opposite of what's happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic peninsula.”

Should Point Blue’s Antarctic research be cancelled this year, it will be the first break in an otherwise perfect dataset—one that is not easy to fill in the gaps.

“It would basically make everything more complicated in terms of analysis and reporting,” said Ballard. “And inevitably something weird will happen that you can't explain, so you then just have to speculate.”

After 17 years of studying Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea, Ballard has not been disillusioned by the cold, remoteness or difficulty of living—for a few months of the year—on the world’s seventh continent.

“Antarctica is mind-blowingly beautiful,” he said. “Most people would actually love it if they had the chance to be there.”