Government Shutdown Raises Fears of Scientific Data Loss, Climate Research Delays

National Hurricane Center staff would normally be working on forecast improvements: 'We can't do any research and development for the next hurricane season.'

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The 2018 government shutdown has affected scientific agencies and their research and data collection across the government. Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
The 2018 government shutdown has affected scientific agencies and their research and data collection across the government. Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated Jan. 12 with the government shutdown surpassing the 1995-96 shutdown to become the longest in U.S. history.

Even though the ideology of President Donald Trump’s administration has been to deny climate science, communities across the country and institutions around the world have continued to rely on the U.S. government to grapple with the climate crisis.

Whether it’s dealing with the devastating impacts of global warming, or supporting research efforts to better understand it, the government shutdown has abruptly stymied that work.

“The one thing that feels very different this time is it feels like there’s no hope in sight,” said Nicole Cantello, chief steward of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago. “How this is going to end is not readily apparent.”


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The budget impasse over Trump’s demand for funds to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border became the longest U.S. government shutdown in history on Jan. 12, surpassing the 21-day record set in 1995-96 over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s demands for deep budget cuts. Although the Democrat-led House was making a bid to pass bills to get parts of the government up and running, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he will not bring any measure to a vote that the president won’t sign. 

Here are some of the climate-related government tasks that have been affected:

California Wildfire Aftermath

In the wake of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history, the EPA planned to take a dedicated look at the impact of wildfires on air and water quality, human health and the environment.

That project now will be delayed, and scientists fear they may lose some opportunities for data collection that would be carried out in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service. (Although firefighting itself is considered an essential service, and emergency personnel are expected to work throughout the shutdown, employees are prohibited from doing “regular work.”)

California has a robust state government research effort, so the loss may not be as severe as it would have been in a state without that capacity. “But the inability for any of the relevant federal agencies to participate and contribute will certainly reduce the scope and magnitude of the data researchers can collect,” one government scientist said.

On one aspect of the wildfire aftermath, EPA employees were still on the job, although with uncertainty on when they would be paid: Toxicologists and other specialists were continuing to help in the hazardous waste assessment and cleanup in the aftermath of the devastating Camp Fire, which killed at least 86 people. Two months after the fire, the teams have conducted assessments on about half of the 13,000 destroyed properties for household chemicals that need special handling before debris can be cleared.

As essential personnel, the EPA personnel deployed to the Camp Fire aftermath are expected to work without pay. But EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who was nominated by Trump on Wednesday to become administrator, sent an email to staff on Tuesday telling them they would receive one-half of their salary for the first week of the shutdown on their upcoming regular pay date this week.

Hurricane Research and Recovery Funding

At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, which is part of NOAA, many of the center’s 50 employees are still required to work—without pay—but they are limited in what they can do, said Eric Blake, a union representative at the center and hurricane specialist.

This is the time of year that the center’s scientists work on improving their forecasting models, but the center’s employees are now “limited to only essential lifesaving activities, which means current weather,” Blake said.

“We can’t do any research and development for the next hurricane season,” he said.

Hurricane recovery efforts are also a problem. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, sent a letter on Wednesday to Trump urging an end to the shutdown to help speed assistance for the state’s recovery from Hurricane Florence. As with wildfire conditions, research shows global warming can exacerbate conditions that fuel destructive storms.

“While we continue the short-term recovery with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s] help, our critical long-term work to rebuild stronger and smarter is delayed with every day that federal funds are held in Washington,” Cooper wrote. He said grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including one to make flood-prone areas safer, are tied up in the government shutdown.

Climate Monitoring and Science

Climate scientists are concerned that the pause in federal funding could mean a gap in the data that has been so important in assessing the changing state of the planet. For example, if an oceanographic beacon goes down—which happens often—there will be no one available to fix it, noted Kevin Trenberth, a climate analyst at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“The biggest shortcoming is if data gaps occur, if people are not maintaining instruments and an instrument goes down,” Trenberth said. At this point, it’s not even certain if that is happening. “Nobody’s keeping track,” he said. “It’s quite unfortunate.”

Trenberth expects that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will still put out its global mean surface temperature report for 2018 as scheduled next week, but that it will be short on the analysis it usually includes about regional variations and impacts, because people aren’t working. 

His own organization, UCAR, a nonprofit consortium that manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under a grant from the National Science Foundation, has funding to operate through Jan. 18. UCAR is assessing its options if the shutdown continues beyond that date.

NOAA specialists in Alaska fisheries and in ocean dynamics are on the team of scientists from around the world who are supposed to be working on a special report on oceans and the cryosphere that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is scheduled to release this year. But if the shutdown continues, their participation could be severely limited.

Federal scientists were also directed to cancel travel plans for the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Phoenix this week. Hundreds of federal employees typically speak at the conference, which is the world’s largest gathering of weather and climate researchers. The EPA posted a warning to its employees that even if they fund their own travel to such conferences, they cannot represent themselves as federal employees, nor can they moderate or participate in panels or present data.

A Pollution Plan for Lake Erie

Extreme rainfall and warming waters are increasing phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie, and the resulting risk of toxic algae blooms like the one that left a half million residents of Toledo, Ohio, without drinking water for two days in 2014.

Community and environmental groups have been litigating against EPA for faster action in reducing the pollution, but a federal judge last fall refused the environmentalists’ bid to find EPA in violation of the Clean Water Act—a move that would have set deadlines for action.

“As climate change and heavy rainfall are pushing out more of this phosphorus pollution, we need a larger system of accountability and oversight,” said the lead lawyer in the case, Madeline Fleisher, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwestern public-interest and legal advocacy group.

The government shutdown has put the problem in sharp relief, because the EPA is now not on hand to coordinate the many stakeholders involved in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the deal between the U.S. and Canada under which authorities have agreed to address the phosphorus pollution. It’s not clear how the shutdown will affect a Lakewide Action and Management Plan that was scheduled to be completed by March, for Lake Erie, which the Ohio EPA last year designated as “impaired.”

Oil, Gas and Long-Term Impact on Staff

One government function does appear to be continuing: oil and gas drilling permits.  The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is treating permits as an exempted activity, according to reports by Bloomberg and E&E News. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has sent a letter to the acting head of the agency, questioning how such activities are being funded.

One federal scientist, who asked not to be named, worries that the impact of the shutdown could be long-lasting, especially for agencies like the EPA. The EPA had already lost more than 1,500 workers, or 8 percent of the staff, in the first 18 months of the Trump administration due to retirements, buyouts and attrition, according to a tally by The Washington Post.

“My biggest concern is that this is the catalyst that makes people decide they’ve had enough,” the scientist said. “The younger staff are hit hardest, both in terms of money and career advancement. It could result in losses that will hurt us for decades.”

InsideClimate News reporters Nicholas Kusnetz and James Bruggers contributed to this story.

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