In January 1774, James Cook edged the Resolution into an unknown icy bay, farther south by hundreds of miles than any vessel had been at that time. Evidence of a massive continent to the south lay around the vessel in the form of huge icebergs and abundant penguins; but they could go no farther through the ice. He had traveled “as far as I think it is possible for man to go” at 71°10′ south latitude. The ship turned north, 90 miles away from an area later called Pine Island Bay. The only Antarctic samples recovered were chips of ice that provided desperately needed drinking water, as well as proof that land-based ice existed nearby. A sense of discovery and awe must have filled the crew as they drank the ancient polar water and imagined the landscapes yet to be discovered.
Now more than 200 years later, the Antarctic region is a hub of scientific discovery across multiple disciplines and a focus for science and infrastructure for many nations. The science carried out there plays a pivotal role in advancing the fundamental understanding of how Earth and the surrounding universe operate. As evidence for major shifts in Earth’s climate accumulates, the role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean as both drivers of and responders to global change is becoming increasingly apparent. The continued sense of discovery and awe, together with the increasingly urgent need to understand how these complex systems work, motivates the pursuit of science in Antarctica, along with the infrastructure and logistics needed to support it.
Profound discoveries emerge both from studies that focus on the Antarctic itself and from studies that leverage Antarctica as a unique platform for looking beyond. The recent identification of a microbial ecosystem native to subglacial Lake Whillans beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is influencing our thinking about where life may exist on other planets. The recovery of the Vostok and Dome C ice cores that demonstrated the tight relationship between global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has framed policy debates about climate change. Precise dating of an ancient boulder has confirmed that the Antarctic and North America were once side by side as a centerpiece of the “supercontinent” Rodinia. Studies of krill, fish, whales, and penguins are helping us understand the complex food-web dynamics in the Ross Sea and Antarctic Peninsula. High-energy neutrinos captured as they passed through a
FIGURE 1.1 Photo taken near the Rothera research station in the West Antarctic Penninsula. SOURCE: Filipa Carvalho.
detector buried in a kilometer of ice at the South Pole tell of a source beyond our solar system. Precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background originating from the first moments of the universe have led to rapid advances in understanding the makeup and evolution of the universe, providing new insights into fundamental physics. The discoveries of Antarctic science reach back almost to the beginning of time and at the same time reach forward to enable understanding of what changes will occur in the future.
The Antarctic ice sheets and the Southern Ocean are now changing faster than James Cook, or even many modern-day scientists, could have imagined. Studies are finding a warming trend in the Antarctic Bottom Water that originates in the Southern Ocean and connects the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans through global circulation patterns. Satellite observations reveal both increasing velocities and decreasing elevation of Antarctic ice sheets. Cores drilled from Antarctic ice contain archives of how atmospheric composition has changed over time, helping us better understand how the climate system works. Sediment core observations of large and frequent changes in past Antarctic ice volume provide insights into how the ice sheet might change in the future. Changes in the ice sheets and the surrounding ocean are increasingly apparent, yet the processes driving these changes remain hotly debated. Understanding these processes is critical to developing accurate projections of how fast future changes will occur, and what impacts may be felt by the rest of the world.
The goal of this report is to help provide a strategic vision for NSF’s investments in Antarctic and Southern Ocean research and infrastructure. For many decades, the United States has been the global leader in Antarctic and Southern Ocean research,
driving major discoveries and advances in understanding the workings of planet Earth and the universe beyond. Currently, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), managed by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs (NSF/PLR) supports U.S. scientific research and related logistics in Antarctica and aboard ships in the Southern Ocean (defined as the ocean south of 60°S). The goals of the program are to:
- Understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems;
- Understand the region’s effects on, and responses to, global processes such as climate; and
- Use Antarctica’s unique features for scientific research that cannot be done elsewhere.
Meeting these broad goals requires support for research over the entire Antarctic continent and the large Southern Ocean. NSF/PLR support for this research is currently organized through six major programs: (i) Astrophysics and Geospace Sciences, (ii) Organisms and Ecosystems, (iii) Earth Sciences, (iv) Glaciology, (v) Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and (vi) Integrated System Science, as well as an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program that aims to increase public understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic. Complementing the core science sections is the Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics section, which maintains the Antarctic research stations, ships, and aircraft, and supports both NSF research and research conducted by other federal agencies. This section manages a large federal contract to the logistics provider (currently Lockheed Martin), and works closely with key U.S. military entities including the New York Air National Guard and the Military Airlift Command. Although budgets vary from year to year, the science sections are funded at a total of approximately $70 million annually, while the Infrastructure and Logistics section is funded at approximately $255 million annually.
The USAP benefits from the broad access that researchers are given to the continent and its surrounding ocean. As mandated by presidential order, the USAP operates three scientific stations on the continent: (i) McMurdo Station, located on the Ross Sea; (ii) Amundsen-Scott Station, located at the geographic South Pole; and (iii) Palmer Station, located on Anvers Island near the Antarctic Peninsula. Major airlift support to the continent through the McMurdo airfields is launched from USAP facilities in New Zealand; and staging facilities in Punta Arenas Chile support Palmer Station and provide the operational base for USAP research vessels. Continuity of operations at these stations and essential infrastructure upgrades require annual ship-based resupply, which in turn requires the services of a heavy icebreaker for break-in to McMurdo. This service traditionally has been performed by the U.S. Coast Guard ships Polar Star or Polar Sea, but in recent years has required leasing the services of other countries’
FIGURE 1.2 Examples of scientific explorations in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. A: Scientists install cameras for the Extreme Ice Survey. SOURCE: Erin Pettit. B: Scientists install a high-frequency dipole antenna in East Antarctica to learn more about solar storms. SOURCE: Hyomin Kim. C: David Ainley studies Adélie Penguins in the Ross Sea. SOURCE: Jean Pennycook. D: NASA’s Long-Duration Balloon site, Willy Field, McMurdo Station. SOURCE: NASA. E: Travis Pitcher working on the GPS monument at Bennett Nunatak, Antarctica. SOURCE: David Saddler. F: Students in an NSF-sponsored training course collecting a water sample through a hole drilled in the ice. SOURCE: Deneb Karentz. G: Scientists with a recently drilled ice core. SOURCE: Dan Dixon/ITASE.
icebreakers. The issue of icebreaking to support U.S. interests in Antarctica is discussed further in Chapter 4.
Over 3,500 Americans are involved each year in the program’s research and logistical activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The level of funding for USAP infrastructure, as well as the high ratio of logistics support personnel to scientists, reflects the complexity and challenges of working safely and with consideration for the environment in the far south. Much of the infrastructure that supports cutting-edge Antarctic and Southern Ocean science is aging and in need of upgrading. In a time of tight science budgets, careful strategic planning is paramount for ensuring that new investments can both help contain future operational costs and maintain the safety of conducting Antarctic research.
The NSF/PLR leadership asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a committee to develop a “strategic vision” for NSF-supported Antarctic and Southern Ocean research for the coming decade. The Committee assembled to carry out this work includes experts in fields as diverse as astrophysics, biological sciences, ecology, geospace sciences, geology and geophysics, glaciology, ocean and atmospheric sciences, education, and data management. Members were selected to bring knowledge of existing and ongoing community planning for new endeavors, hands-on experience in Antarctic research, as well as new perspectives from outside the Antarctic science community. Committee biosketches are in Appendix A.
This study builds on a series of advisory efforts that began in 2010, when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the NSF initiated a review to help ensure that the USAP supports the most important science in a manner that is as effective, efficient, innovative, safe, and environmentally friendly as possible. That review was conducted in two phases:
First, a broad scientific scoping effort was conducted by the Academies’ Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, tasked to identify important scientific drivers that could shape the future of the USAP research. That committee was asked to highlight the full array of important science that can be done in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, without suggesting any prioritization. The report, Future Science Opportunities in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean (NRC, 2011a), outlined eight high-level questions of critical importance to scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next two decades. See Box 1.1 and Appendix C for
The High-Level Science Questions from Future Science Opportunities in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean
- 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?
- 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 interactions between Earth and the space environment?
- How did the universe begin, what is it made of, and what determines its evolution?
details. The Committee decided that this framework of eight questions still holds up well as an accurate reflection of today’s science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Thus we deliberately built upon that framework by trying to identify specific, implementable steps forward under each of those eight questions.
Second, a study was conducted by a special Blue Ribbon Panel that examined the logistics, management, and infrastructure needed to support the science identified in the Future Science Opportunities study. The resulting report, More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness (BRP, 2012), offers an array of recommendations that are summarized in Appendix D. The Blue Ribbon Panel highlighted the need for major reinvestment in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean infrastructure, especially at McMurdo and Palmer. The previous assessment of this type (Augustine et al., 1997) resulted in the rebuild of the South Pole station, followed by the installation of the 10-m South Pole Telescope and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. These major infrastructure and instrumentation investments had significant impacts on Antarctic science for almost a decade. The lessons learned from these past experiences, together with the Blue Ribbon Panel’s call for a new round of major infrastructure investments, and the potential for tight science budgets in the coming years, all point to the need for careful strategic planning for the next decade of USAP operations.
While these two previous studies laid an important foundation for setting big-picture goals for the USAP, NSF decided that an additional round of guidance would aid strategic planning and ensure that cutting-edge science is maintained during the next round of infrastructure modernization. This Committee was asked to build upon those earlier reports with recommendations for action that are fine-grained enough to be implementable on a practical level, and that are aligned with reasonable expectations for the resources likely to be available. The Committee was also asked to consider how NSF might set priorities among the many areas of research that are possible, given the realities that not all such research can be pursued at once.
The full Statement of Task for this study is provided in Appendix B. The recommendations presented here directly address the first two elements of this Task Statement: identifying priorities for strategic investment in compelling scientific activities, and analyzing the infrastructure needed to support this priority research. The Committee did not feel it had sufficient information or rationale, however, to fully address the third element of the Task Statement—evaluating how the current portfolio of program investments should change to achieve our strategic vision. Although the NSF/PLR staff did provide some information about the goals and types of research supported under the core programs, this information was limited and very mixed in terms of format and detail, and was only a snapshot of an evolving portfolio. The Committee felt this did not provide an adequate basis for recommending specific adjustments to the current portfolio. Likewise the Committee did not feel it was productive to call out specific existing grants that should be phased out, or to suggest specific limits on the number, size, or types of projects supported through the core programs—because this depends on how the program’s annual budget changes over the course of the coming decade. And as discussed later, we are recommending that the core programs continue to base most investment decisions on how individual proposals fare in the standard peer review process, rather than being determined top-down by our Committee.
This report is built on an extensive effort to gather ideas from across the geographically widespread and disciplinarily diverse community of Antarctic and Southern Ocean researchers across the United States. The outreach efforts undertaken for this study spanned 11 months and engaged over 450 people. The major components were:
- An initial Town Hall session was held at the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to announce the study and inform participants about the opportunities to contribute ideas.
- An online “Virtual Town Hall” website (online from March to November 2014) provided a place where anyone was able to submit ideas in writing. The
website was widely promoted via numerous list servers used among the polar research community and at relevant conferences and meeting sessions.
- A series of outreach sessions was held at 14 locations across the country. Some of these were stand-alone events held at universities and other locations identified as active “hubs” of USAP-related research. Others were shorter sessions held in conjunction with existing conferences and meetings. The dates and locations of these outreach events are listed in Appendix E. (See Figure 1.3.)
In all of these forums, participants were asked to: suggest research questions that are ripe for major advances in understanding and that could feasibly be achieved in the coming decade; identify specific technological, infrastructure, or data-sharing developments that are necessary to enable this research; and identify opportunities to advance this research through interagency cooperation, international cooperation, or other innovative arrangements.
The Committee also considered the results of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) “Horizon Scan” process (Kennicutt et al., 2014a,b), which was conducted in parallel with this U.S.-focused planning effort. For the Horizon Scan, scientists from around the world identified the most compelling science questions that
FIGURE 1.3 Photos from community engagement sessions held for this study.
will drive international Antarctic science forward in the next two decades. Through a combination of online input and a retreat of 74 experts from 22 countries, a total of 80 science questions were identified, and grouped under the following major topics: (1) Antarctic atmosphere and global connections and the Southern Ocean and sea ice in a warming world, (2) the ice sheet and sea level, (3) the dynamic earth beneath Antarctic ice, (4) life on the precipice, (5) near-Earth space and beyond—eyes on the sky, and (6) human presence in Antarctica. Several members of the Committee attended the Horizon Scan retreat, coauthored the reports, and provided input on linking U.S. planning with international efforts.
The Committee held six meetings to gather information, discuss and debate their views, and work on crafting this report. Those invited to speak at the meetings included numerous representatives of NSF, along with representatives of other federal agencies involved in the U.S. Antarctic Program, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as the State Department and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition, briefings were provided from representatives of select research institutions, from other relevant National Academies’ boards and studies, and from international organizations such as SCAR. See Appendix F for a full list of the meeting speakers.
Given the broad nature of this study, all Committee members had to evaluate and compare research needs across a wide array of topics that reached well beyond each individual’s personal expertise. To foster a more informed process, the Committee members presented to each other a series of educational tutorials on key concepts, exciting recent developments, and remaining challenges for the many different fields of research anticipated to be addressed in this study.
Although this study and its recommendations are aimed primarily at NSF leadership, we hope it will be useful to an array of other audiences, including officials at other federal agencies that conduct research and operations in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, examiners at the Office of Management and Budget, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and congressional staff and committees. We hope the research community at large, which greatly helped shape the findings and recommendations presented here, will also find the report to be useful for a variety of educational and research planning purposes.
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