Mention of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean conjures up images of vast, icy, remote spaces, and it can be hard to imagine how these southernmost reaches of the planet are connected to daily life. But this very large region of the world is tightly linked to the global system in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand and fully appreciate. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are unique vantage points from which to observe major environmental changes happening on the planet, and they offer unparalleled platforms from which to discover new and exciting things about the world and universe.
Large changes are happening to the planet, and, simultaneously, scientists are developing the capability to observe and understand the world in new ways (IPCC, 2007; National Research Council, 2010b). There are large global questions at hand that are vitally important for society. How much will global sea levels rise in the coming decades? How quickly is the acidity of the global oceans changing, and how will ocean food chains be affected? To what extent will changes in Southern Ocean temperature and saltiness influence global climate? How will global climate change affect life forms in the ocean and on land? Understanding the processes that occur in this region is crucial to answering these questions. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are simultaneously intimately involved in the global changes that are occurring and unique places from which to witness those changes.
Historically, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have always been places of fundamentally new discoveries. This region was one of the last to be explored: the first person reached the South Pole just 100 years ago. As such, there has been much mystery surrounding this region. Indeed, there are still sections of the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean where direct observations have not yet been made. New discoveries occur on a continual basis—scientists have found enormous lakes and mountain ranges completely covered underneath the ice, as well as entire ecosystems of never-before-seen life forms under the ice shelves, in the frozen lakes, and in the ice-free areas of the continent. Ice core records continue to reveal new insights into the history of Earth’s climate. Scientists are continually learning more about how life survives in extreme environments with impacts and implications for everyday life. In addition, Antarctica is a platform for observations of the upper reaches of the atmosphere and into the universe beyond. Scientists are able to examine fundamental questions about
the origins of the universe and the nature of the solar system owing in part to the remarkable clarity and stability of the atmosphere above the high Antarctic plateau. In the coming decades, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean will continue to be a place where new discoveries are made.
The types of research questions that are studied in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are often broad and multifaceted, which necessitate collaborations among scientists from differing disciplines, backgrounds, and nations. In addition, because of the harsh environmental conditions and remoteness of the region (see Box 1.1), conducting science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean presents special logistical challenges. Overcoming these challenges has led nations to collaborate with one another in their support of science in this region. Technological innovations have always aided in the support of science in the Antarctic environment, and it will be important to continue to take advantage of new technologies as they emerge in the future. Last, it takes specific training on how to do scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and the education of the next generation of Antarctic scientists will continue to be a critical issue. Choices that are made about these issues—collaborations, technology, and education—will have a large influence on the capacity to conduct scientific research in this part of the world in the future. If opportunities are exploited wisely, they have the ability to extend the reach and the quality of the scientific work conducted in this region.
In the United States, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) within the National Science Foundation (NSF) holds the primary responsibility for supporting science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. USAP is also at a unique time in its history. The last review of this program was 15 years ago (Augustine et al., 1997; Executive Office of the President, 1996). A major outcome from that review process was the reconstruction of the South Pole Station, which has solidified the U.S. presence on the continent. That reconstruction of the South Pole Station, which required a major investment of resources, has recently been completed. Now is the time to examine the program and look forward to the future directions for science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
At the request of the NSF Office of Polar Programs, in coordination with the Office of Science Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget and under the auspices of the National Research Council, the Committee on Future Science Opportunities in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean was asked to identify the important scien-
tific issues that will drive research in Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean over the next two decades. The committee was neither expected to set priorities among scientific research areas nor asked to discuss budgetary issues. The full Statement of Task can be found in Appendix A. The information in this report is intended to inform a subsequent NSF Blue Ribbon Panel that is examining logistical operations in Antarctica. The goal is for the combination of these two studies to ensure that logistical operations are capable of supporting important forefront scientific research in Antarctica over the coming two decades.
In gathering information for this report, the committee relied upon previous work by other organizations (e.g., the International Council for Science, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, etc.) and drew upon recent scientific achievements in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean including those reported during the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY). Numerous workshops and reports were considered during this process; a selection of the important documents used is listed in Box 1.2.
In identifying future science requirements, the committee gathered input from a large portion of the U.S. polar research community through an online questionnaire (see Appendix B). More than 200 scientists responded to this questionnaire and that information has broadly informed the conclusions in this report. The science priorities identified by questionnaire respondents correspond closely to the science drivers the committee highlighted in this report.
In understanding the needs of the other federal agencies that depend on the USAP for infrastructure and logistics, the committee heard directly from a number of speakers and conducted interviews with various key personnel in those agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Several members of the committee who had not previously traveled to Antarctica had the opportunity to visit McMurdo Station, a field research camp, and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the report process to see many U.S. activities firsthand and interact with scientists in the field.
This report is structured around major themes and supporting activities identified by the committee. Chapter 2 describes how Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are keystones in the mechanisms by which global change occurs and unique vantage points from which to observe climate and environmental change. Chapter 3 describes how Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are unique places to discover new things about the world and the universe. Chapter 4 explores several opportunities that could
BOX 1.1 QUICK FACTS ABOUT ANTARCTICA AND THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
Antarctica (Figure 1) is an extraordinary place—it is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. In fact, the coldest recorded temperature on Earth (−89.2°C or −128.6°F) was measured at Vostok Station in 1983. Antarctica covers nearly 14 million km2 (5.4 million mi2), which is approximately 1.4 times the size of the United States. Despite much of the continent receiving little enough annual precipitation to be classified as a desert, approximately 90 percent of all the ice on the planet is located in Antarctica and the continent holds substantial amounts of the world’s freshwater (SCAR, 2010). In the middle of the continent, the Antarctic ice sheet is more than 2 miles thick. Indeed, less than 0.5 percent of Antarctica is not covered by ice (British Antarctic Survey, 2005). But the ice is not static; it moves in large glaciers, sometimes at speeds that can cover more than 9 m (30 ft) in a day. If Antarctica’s ice sheets melt, the world’s oceans would rise by at least 60 m (200 ft) or more (Huybrechts et al., 2000). One of the biggest icebergs ever seen broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2000; it was the size of Connecticut and approximately 250 m (800 ft) thick, holding enough water to sustain total world consumption for more than a year.
FIGURE 1 RADARSAT data of Antarctica from the Antarctic Mapping Mission.
SOURCE: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio and Canadian Space Agency, RADARSAT International Inc.
The Southern Ocean completely surrounds Antarctica and is bounded to the north by the waters of the South Pacific, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. It is very deep (in general, deeper than 4,000 m) and contains minimal shallow-water areas. The Southern Ocean also contains the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which moves eastward around the continent and is the longest ocean current in the world. The Southern Ocean is an extremely important region of the globe for air-sea exchange of carbon dioxide, second only to the northern North Atlantic.
This is a place of extremes with many opportunities for learning and discovery (Figure 2). Antarctica presents scientists with a crucial platform for research to increase the understanding of Earth and the complicated processes that govern the climate and environment.
FIGURE 2 Examples of the unique nature and extremes of Antarctica. Clockwise from top left: aerial view of the Mt. Erebus crater, the southernmost active volcano; Adelie penguins and a Minke whale near McMurdo Station; a glacier extends into the sea ice in the Ross Sea; aurora display over the Dark Sector of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where telescopes are studying the cosmic microwave background radiation to learn about the origin and evolution of the universe. SOURCES (clockwise from top left): Christopher Dean, NSF; Alex Isern, NSF; Robyn Waserman, NSF; and Keith Vanderlinde, NSF.
be used to leverage the efforts to address the logistical challenges that conducting scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean present—collaborations, technology, and education. Chapter 4 also outlines two areas that will require support to address the scientific questions identified here: an observation network with data integration and an enhanced scientific modeling effort. Finally, Chapter 5 provides a list of recommendations.
BOX 1.2 COMPILATION OF IMPORTANT REFERENCES
During this activity, the committee built upon the work of others and consulted a number of previous reports, papers, and articles on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The following is a selection of the references that were drawn upon by the committee during the report-writing process:
• Augustine, N. R., et al. 1997. The United States in Antarctica: Report of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs.
• Berkman, P. A. 2011. Science Diplomacy: Science, Antarctica, and the Governance of International Spaces. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
• Burton, M. G. 2010. Astronomy in Antarctica. Astronomy and Astrophysics Review 18(4):417-469.
• Executive Office of the President. 1996. United States Antarctic Program. Washington, D.C.: Committee on Fundamental Science, National Science and Technology Council.
• IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2010. IPCC Workshop on Sea Level Rise and Ice Sheet Instabilities, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21-24 June 2010: Workshop Report. T. F. Stocker, D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. Allen, and P. M. Midgley, eds. Bern, Switzerland: IPCC Working Group I Technical Support Unit, University of Bern.
• Krupnik, I., et al., eds. 2011. Understanding Earth’s Polar Challenges: International Polar Year 2007-2008. Summary by the IPY Joint Committee, University of the Arctic, Rovaniemi, Finland /CCI Press, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and ICSU/WMO Joint Committee for International Polar Year 2007-2008.
• National Research Council. 2003. Frontiers in Polar Biology in the Genomic Era. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
• National Research Council. 2007. Exploration of Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments: Environmental and Scientific. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
• National Research Council. 2010. Ocean Acidification: A National Strategy to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Ocean. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
• National Science Foundation. 2009. United States Antarctic Program: 2009-2010 Season Summary and Background. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation.
• National Science Foundation. 2011. Long Range Science Plan 2011-2021, Ice Drilling Program Office.
• Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. 2009. Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment: A Contribution to the International Polar Year 2007-2008. Cambridge, U.K.: Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
• Rintoul, S. R., M. D. Sparrow, M. P. Meredith, V. Wadley, K. Speer, E. Hofmann, C. Summerhayes, E. Urban, and R. Bellerby, eds. 2011. The Southern Ocean Observing System: Initial Science and Implementation Strategy. Cambridge, U.K.: Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research.
• Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. 2011. Antarctic Science and Policy Advice in a Changing World: Strategic Plan 2011-2016. Cambridge, U.K.: Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.