Explorers and scientists have worked to unlock the secrets of Antarctica for more than a century, and it has been just more than 50 years since the International Geophysical Year (1958-1959) ushered in an era of modern, internationally coordinated science. Yet the Antarctic continent and surrounding oceans still offer many untapped scientific opportunities. With advances in the understanding of the importance of the Antarctic region in the global system; advances in technology, computing power, and communications; and the continued geopolitical importance of having a scientific presence in the South, it is time to move into the next era of Antarctic and Southern Ocean science.
Over the past several years, evidence of a rapidly changing Antarctic environment has emerged from analyses of multiple data sets collected using a variety of different sensors. This information will be immensely valuable in expanding the understanding of climatic change across the globe. Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean offer an unparalleled laboratory for studying environmental change and its global dynamics. In addition, the polar environment remains a unique place for scientific discovery, evidenced by the remarkable advances emerging from the efforts of more than 60 nations during the International Polar Year 2007-2008. These are discoveries that will alter the basic understanding of how the planet works and how the universe was formed. Moving forward in the coming decades, science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean has the potential to lead to major advances in answering numerous questions of importance to science and society.
The United States is well positioned to continue as the preeminent research presence in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean by virtue of having a large national logistical support program and an exceptional pool of scientific talent upon which to draw. The South Pole Station, a major reconstruction project that required a significant portion of available resources of the U.S. Antarctic Program for much of the past decade, is completed. This reconstruction, along with the major effort required to construct the IceCube project, led to an imbalance in the resource allocation among the other areas of science seeking support. Now that the United States has a state-of-the-art research station high on the Antarctic ice sheet to compliment the stations at McMurdo and Palmer, there is an opportunity to strive to bring better balance in the support of all
science and logistics priorities. The proposed observing network described in this report (Section 4.4) would facilitate some of that balance because many disciplines would benefit from the realization of such a network.
In this report, the committee has presented key science questions that the committee believes will drive research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the coming decades, and the committee has highlighted several key opportunities to be leveraged to address those questions most efficiently. In this final chapter, the committee outlines six overarching recommendations that it believes are necessary to ensure success for the next generation of Antarctic science. The committee recommends that the United States
1. Lead the development of a large-scale interdisciplinary observing network and support a new generation of robust Earth system models. A broad-based observing system, including remote sensing as well as in situ instrumentation, is needed that can collect data that will record ongoing changes in the Antarctic atmosphere, ice sheets, surrounding oceans, and ecosystems. Such a large, sustained, and international effort will require a robust planning process and will likely require the leadership of at least one country; the United States could be the leader in this effort. Within the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has the ability to take the lead in developing this observing network in close collaboration with other federal agencies having a fundamental interest in the polar environment, for example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The goals of the observing network should be to measure and record ongoing changes, develop advanced understanding of the drivers of that change, and provide input for climate models that will enable the United States to project and adapt to the global impact evidenced by the changing Antarctic environment. Earth system models will need to incorporate the unique (and often unknown) conditions in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in order to better project future changes to the planet more robustly.
2. Continue to support a wide variety of basic scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, which will yield a new generation of discoveries. The Antarctic region provides a unique platform to perform basic science in a wide breadth of disciplines. In the coming decades future research directions will include discovering more about the climatic shifts that Earth has undergone in its history, the genetic understanding of diverse polar species and their adaptation to the rigors of life in Antarctica, and the predictabil-
ity of the weather in space, as well as the mystery of neutrinos and the origin and evolution of the universe. This research is poised to lead to remarkable new insights into the world and the universe over the next two decades.
3. Design and implement improved mechanisms for international collaboration. The complex nature and scope of both the changes to be studied and discovery-based basic science that will be conducted over the next 20 years in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean requires international teamwork. The International Polar Year (IPY) held from 2007 to 2008 demonstrated how successful international collaboration could work to foster discoveries and insights impossible for any single nation to complete. Even with the nation’s unique logistical capabilities, the vast size of the Antarctic continent and ocean makes working with other nations and taking mutual advantage of their bases, ships, and transport systems both practical and advantageous. The logistical and scientific successes of the IPY demonstrated that the United States can appropriately support large collaborative international programs. The United States can best retain its leadership role in global science if it takes the lead in future international initiatives. Mechanisms to ensure timely and integrated international collaborative research would greatly enhance this effort.
4. Exploit the host of emerging technologies now and in the near future that can help facilitate all phases of research and logistics in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Technology has the ability to extend science’s reach and revolutionize what is possible. A continued effort to incorporate and adopt new technology including cyberinfrastructure and novel sensors would ensure increased efficiency in U.S. scientific research efforts.
5. Coordinate an integrated polar educational program. The polar regions have powerful appeal to learners of all ages, and Antarctica could be used in the effort to help recruit, train, and retain a diverse and skilled scientific workforce for the future. The committee envisions building upon existing educational activities to develop a more integrated polar educational program that would encompass all learners including K-12, undergraduates, graduate students, early career investigators, and life-long learners. The polar education program should be based on the advances of modern educational research, incorporate experiences from other directorates at NSF, strive to diversify the population of students engaged in polar science, and take advantage of lessons learned from the IPY. The goal of this effort should be to engage the next generation of scientists and engineers required to support an economically competitive nation and foster a scientifically literate U.S. citizenry. A planning
process to design an integrated polar education program with other agencies with strong interests in the polar regions would be a logical beginning.
6. Finally, the conduct of the far-reaching and innovative work recommended in this report will require continued strong logistical support. The committee encourages the NSF-led Blue Ribbon Panel to develop a plan to support Antarctic science in the next two decades that will
• improve the efficiency of the support provided by the contractor and enhance the oversight and management of the contractor by the scientific community;
• increase the flexibility and mobility of the support system to work in a continent-wide and ocean-wide manner, using as much of the year and continent as possible, and fostering innovative “cutting edge” science; and
• maintain and enhance the unique logistical assets of the United States, including the research stations, aircraft, and research vessels with increased icebreaking capabilities, and heavy icebreakers for reliable resupply of the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Such adaptations will help the U.S. Antarctic Program continue to meet scientific research needs in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next two decades.
The Antarctic continent and surrounding ocean are unique sites for science to flourish. The science emerging from the U.S. Antarctic Program has provided new insights into how the planet is changing that have potential global economic and security ramifications. Scientific publications from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean routinely advance the basic understanding of this planet and beyond.
The Antarctic continent brings together scientists who push forward the frontiers of human knowledge, those who have recognized the rich opportunities for advancing fundamental knowledge on this vast ice-covered continent and the surrounding wild Southern Ocean. The Antarctic region contains unique natural environments; preserving these for experimental science requires a continued commitment to stewardship that should not be lost as science moves forward in the coming decades.
This report has highlighted directions that U.S. Antarctic and Southern Ocean science can and should move over the next 20 years. These efforts have the potential to produce thrilling new discoveries and a richer understanding of the planet and the changes it will face in the future. These discoveries will be possible only with a robust and efficient U.S. Antarctic Program.
Gersemia Antarctica, also known as soft coral, under the sea ice near McMurdo station, Ross Island.
SOURCE: Rob Robbins/NSF