At the request of the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget, the National Research Council convened a committee of experts to identify the major science questions that will drive research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next 10 to 20 years. The committee suggested eight questions that fall into two broad themes: those related to global change, and those related to fundamental discoveries, described below.
Global change. Over the past century, temperatures on land and in the ocean have started to increase. Sea level is rising, global weather patterns are shifting, and the chemical and biological processes of the planet are changing. The climate and geography of Antarctica are both an important influence on these processes and a unique environment from which to monitor change. The Committee highlighted several areas of science that will be important in future research on how Antarctica and the Southern Ocean affect and are affected by broader global changes.
- How will Antarctica contribute to changes in global sea level?
- What is the role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the global climate system?
- What is the response of Antarctic biota and ecosystems to change?
What role has Antarctica played in changing the planet in the past?
Discovery. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean provide a natural laboratory for scientific discovery. The tiny air bubbles trapped within the ice hold a record of the planet’s atmosphere through time, the living things in the ocean and on land can teach scientists about survival strategies in extreme environments, and Antarctica provides an excellent platform for looking out to the solar system and the universe beyond. The Committee highlighted several areas of science that will be important in discovery-
driven scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next two decades.
- What can records preserved in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean reveal about past and future climates?
- How has life adapted to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean environments?
- What can the Antarctic platform reveal about the interactions between the Earth and the space environment?
- How did the universe begin, what is it made of, and what determines its evolution?
In addition, the Committee identified several opportunities that could be leveraged to sustain and improve the science program in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the coming two decades.
Collaboration. Over the past half-century, collaborations between nations, across disciplinary boundaries, and between public- and private-sector entities, and between scientific and logistics personnel have helped research in Antarctica become a large and successful international scientific enterprise. The International Polar Year, held from 2007 to 2008, demonstrated how successful international collaboration can facilitate research that no nation could complete alone. This report examines opportunities to enhance each of these types of collaboration, with the overall conclusion that by working together, scientists can reach their goals more quickly and more affordably.
Energy, technology, and infrastructure. Advances in energy-supply technology can make scientific research in Antarctica more cost-effective, allowing a greater proportion of funds to be used to support research rather than to establish and maintain infrastructure. For example, most of the energy required to power research stations and field camps and to transport people and materials comes from the burning of fossil fuels. In addition to the cost of the fuel, the combustion of fossil fuels pollutes the air, and fuel leaks during storage and transport have the potential to contaminate the surrounding environment. Innovations such as more cost-effective overland transportation systems for fuel, or the use of wind-power generators, promise to reduce the cost and pollution associated with fuel transport.
Education. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean offer great opportunities for inspiring popular interest in science in much the same way as space exploration did in the latter half of the 20th century. The National Science Foundation has supported a broad range of educational efforts to spark interest in polar science, including television specials, radio programs, and a multimedia presentation that toured U.S. science centers, museums, and schools. These efforts will not only increase public awareness
and understanding of the research taking place in Antarctica, but will help to inspire the future generations of polar scientists. Building upon existing educational activities to develop a more integrated polar educational program, which would encompass all learners including K-12, undergraduates, graduate students, early-career investigators, and life-long learners, would help engage the next generation of scientists and engineers required to support an economically competitive nation and foster a scientifically literate U.S. public.
Observing network with data integration and scientific modeling. To better predict future conditions, scientists need networks of observing systems that can collect and record data on the ongoing changes in the Antarctic region’s atmosphere, ice sheets, oceans, and ecosystems. This network should be able to measure and record ongoing changes to develop an advanced understanding of the drivers of change and to provide inputs for models that will enable the United States to better project and adapt to the global impacts of a changing Antarctic environment. The envisioned observing network shares many characteristics of previous initiatives, such as the Arctic Observing Network or the proposed Pan-Antarctic Observing System. There is also an inherent need for improved sharing of data and information. Improvements in the collection, management, archiving, and exchange of information will allow data to be used for multiple purposes by a variety of stakeholders.
In addition, improvements in scientific models of the Antarctic region are urgently needed to strengthen the simulation and prediction of future global climate patterns. These initiatives will require interdisciplinary approaches at the system scale that would be best addressed with a coordinated, long-term, international effort. Given the scope of the research program and support infrastructure in the Antarctic region, the United States has the opportunity to play a leading role in efforts to develop a large-scale, interdisciplinary observing network and robust earth system models that can accurately simulate the conditions of the Antarctic region.
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