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(CBSNews.com) - Climate researchers are fighting the U.S. government shutdown with a petition that asks Congress to fund critical work in Antarctica before it's too late this year.

"The consequences of shutting down are devastating to advancing science and research," writes Richard Jeong, a contractor who's been working as a contractor at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, on the grassroots advocacy website, Change.org.

Nearly 4,000 people, including several whose research in the South Pole is in jeopardy, have signed Jeong's petition urging the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to either reopen the federal government or exempt from closure the $350 million U.S. Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation, which coordinates the program, has ordered it into "caretaker status," suspending research activities not essential to human safety or property preservation. The NSF also coordinates research in the Arctic, or the North Pole.

Research in Antarctica often begins this month as temperatures warm. Scientists say they have a short window in which to collect measurements from ice sheets or lakes before glaciers and permafrost start thawing in mid-November. They say missing one season could ruin multi-year projects and cost extra money to restart..

Anne Gambrel, a doctoral student at Princeton University, says she's part of a team of scientists who have been working for about a decade to launch a telescope on a balloon from Antarctica. They planned to accomplish this in December.

"It is devastating to us to think that at this crucial point in our project, we can't take the final step," she writes in supporting Jeong's petition. "Besides the vast amount of science that is being delayed or canceled, shutting down the continent for the season is wasting millions of dollars."

Another graduate student doing research in the South Pole, Elizabeth George of the University of California, Berkeley, says scientists could lose "not only this season but years worth of work." Even if the government resumes in two weeks, she says, "the damage to decades of scientific research will be irreversible."

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