Graduate student frozen out of research in Antarctica because of U.S. government shutdown


Time on his hands. Sebastian Vivancos (inset) is part of the newly arrived team whose planned research activities at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica are being thwarted by the government shutdown.

After 5 years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, Jamie Collins knows what it’s like to be at sea. But nothing in his military service prepared him for his current 30,000-km scientific round trip to nowhere, courtesy of the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve a budget. His predicament is one of the stranger—and sadder—tales of how the government-wide shutdown is affecting researchers.

Collins, a third-year graduate student in chemical oceanography, arrived Wednesday at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Palmer Station in Antarctica. He was eager to begin working on a long-running ecological research project funded by NSF and to start collecting data for his dissertation in a graduate program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But the rough seas he encountered during his 4-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage in the south Atlantic—the final leg of a journey that began in Boston—paled in comparison to the storm he encountered once he stepped off the Laurence M. Gould, a U.S. icebreaking research vessel that ferries scientists and supplies between Puenta Arenas, Chile, and the west Antarctic Peninsula.

On Tuesday, NSF had announced that its contractor for Antarctic logistical support, Lockheed Martin, would begin putting the three U.S. stations on “caretaker” status unless Congress passed an appropriations bill to continue funding the government by 14 October. Although legislators will eventually adopt such a bill, nobody expects them to act in the next few days. Without an appropriation, NSF has no money to operate the stations.

For Collins, that announcement meant his plans for an intensive 5-month research regime had suddenly melted away. “The station manager told us not to unpack our stuff and to stay on the ship,” he says in a phone call to ScienceInsider from the ship. “She said we were to wait here for a week while they prepare to shut down the station. Then we’d sail back to Chile, and go home.”

Collins was stunned. “I had spent all summer preparing for this trip,” he says. He had filled three pallets with supplies for his experiments on how algae in the region detect and react to the presence of ultraviolet radiation, part of a larger effort to understand the role that bacteria play in sequestering carbon in the Southern Ocean. “Without the data from those experiments, I may have to reevaluate what to do for my Ph.D.,” he adds.

Collins was also part of the first wave of students arriving at Palmer this season to work on a research project, begun in 1990, that explores how the extent of annual sea ice affects the polar biota. The project is one of 26 so-called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) sites around the world that NSF supports. He was scheduled to divide his time at Palmer between his own research and monitoring penguin colonies on several offshore islands as part of the LTER project. And he had signed up for a 6-week research cruise aboard the Gould that supplements the land-based LTER observations with oceanographic data collected up and down the peninsula.

Despite the jarring news, the 31-year-old Collins says that he is more worried about what it may mean to some of his younger colleagues with less worldly experience. “I spent 5 years in the military and I’m used to dealing with bureaucracy,” he explains. “And nothing that happens here is going to deter me from pursuing my goal of a career in science. But for some of the undergraduates on the trip, this is their first taste of what Congress thinks about the value of scientific research. And it’s sending them a pretty horrific message.”

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Landscape of Dead Bodies May Have Inspired First Mummies


Trekking through Chile’s Atacama Desert 7000 years ago, hunter-gatherers known as the Chinchorro walked in the land of the dead. Thousands of shallowly buried human bodies littered the earth, their leathery corpses pockmarking the desolate surroundings. According to new research, the scene inspired the Chinchorro to begin mummifying their dead, a practice they adopted roughly 3000 years before the Egyptians embraced it.

Archaeologists have long studied how the Chinchorro made their mummies, the first in history, says ecologist Pablo Marquet of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. After removing the skin to be dried, the hunter-gatherers scooped out the organs and stuffed the body with clay, dried plants, and sticks. Once they reattached the skin, embalmers painted the mummy shiny black or red and put a black wig on its head. Covering the corpses’ faces were clay masks, some molded into an open-mouthed expression that later inspired Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream.

Few scientists have tackled the mystery of why the Chinchorro started to mummify their dead in the first place. Complicated cultural practices such as mummification, Marquet says, tend to arise only in large, sedentary populations. The more people you have in one place, the more opportunity for innovation, development, and the spread of new ideas. The Chinchorro don’t fit that mold. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they formed groups of about only 100 people.

To solve the mystery, Marquet and his colleagues needed to go back in time. Using data from ice cores in the Andes, the researchers reconstructed the climate of the region where the Chinchorro lived: the northern coast of Chile and the southern coast of Peru, along the western edge of the Atacama Desert. Before 7000 years ago, the area was extremely arid, the team found, but then it went through a wetter period that lasted until about 4000 years ago. Analyses of carbon-dated Chinchorro artifacts, such as shell piles (known as middens) and mummies, suggest that the rainier conditions supported a larger population, peaking about 6000 years ago.

The team calculated, based on the demographics of hunter-gatherers, that a single Chinchorro group of roughly 100 people would produce about 400 corpses every century. These corpses, shallowly buried and exposed to the arid Atacama climate, would not have decomposed, but lingered. Given that the Chinchorro settled the Atacama coast roughly 10,000 years ago, the researchers argue that by the time the practice of mummification started about 7000 years ago, a staggering number of bodies would have piled up. A single person was likely to see several thousand naturally mummified bodies during his or her lifetime, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The number increased over the years, until mummies “became part of the landscape,” Marquet says.

This constant exposure to natural mummies may have led to a cult of the dead involving artificial mummification. “The dead have a huge impact on the living,” Marquet says, citing work by psychologists and sociologists that shows that exposure to dead bodies produces tangible psychological and social effects, often leading to religious practices. “There’s a conflict between how you think of someone alive and dead,” he says. Religious practices and ideas—such as funerals, wakes, and the belief in ghosts—help resolve that conflict. “Imagine living in the barren desert with barely anything, just sand and stone,” he says. Barely anything, that is, except for hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies that never decay. One would feel “compelled somehow to relate” to the corpses, he says, speculating that the Chinchorro made mummies in order to come to terms with the continued presence of their dead. When the climate turned dry again and food supplies dwindled, Marquet says, the population dropped. The complex Chinchorro embalming practices also petered out around that time.

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.