A Threat to Antarctic Research

August 17, 2012 · 0 comments

Scientific research in Antarctica is approaching a tipping point of its own, with logistical costs overwhelming the budget, according to a new report written by an independent panel commissioned by the White House. The report recommends fundamental changes to the infrastructure of U.S. scientific facilities in Antarctica; otherwise, according to the report, logistics costs will increase “until they altogether squeeze out funding for science.”

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), supports three year-round stations (McMurdo, Palmer, and Amundsen-Scott South Pole), as well as more than 50 field sites a year that are active during the summer months. The report found numerous infrastructure problems at USAP facilities, including:

a warehouse where some areas are avoided because the forklifts fall through the floor; kitchens with no grease traps; outdoor storage of supplies that can only be found by digging through deep piles of snow; gaps so large under doors that the wind blows snow into the buildings; late 1950s International Geophysical Year-era vehicles; antiquated communications; an almost total absence of modern inventory management systems (including the use of bar codes in many cases); indoor storage inefficiently dispersed in more than 20 buildings at McMurdo Station; some 350,000 pounds (159,000 kilograms) of scrap lumber awaiting return to the U.S. for disposal…

In addition, transportation both to and from Antarctica and on the continent has become increasingly problematic. Despite the recent addition of overland traverse vehicles, delivery of supplies to USAP camps remains costly and inefficient. Meanwhile, the U.S. icebreaker fleet currently consists of just one functioning vessel (and that one doesn’t have the capability to break through thick ice). As a result, the United States has been forced to lease icebreakers from other nations–an expensive and unreliable solution.

“We are convinced that if we don’t do something fairly soon, the science will just disappear,” notes Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who led the review panel. “Everything will be hauling people down and back, and doing nothing.”

Almost 90% of the USAP budget is currently spent on transportation, support personnel, and other logistical matters, leaving few resources for actual scientific research. To rectify that situation, the report recommends decreasing the NSF’s budget for Antarctic research by 6% a year for four years and increasing spending on improving the USAP’s infrastructure and logistics by the same amount over the same period. The short-term result will be a hit to the research currently being conducted in Antarctica, but over the long term the proposal should allow such research to continue to take place there. The report also notes additional savings could be achieved by delivering more supplies to the landlocked Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole by overland traverse instead of cargo flights, and by reducing support personnel at the three USAP bases by 20%. The report also endorses President Obama’s 2013 budget request for the U.S. Coast Guard to begin designing a new icebreaker.

Ultimately, the review panel’s suggestions are about more than just specific numbers and initiatives. They are about a basic change in the way scientific research is conducted in Antarctica. As the report states:

Overcoming these barriers requires a fundamental shift in the manner in which capital projects and major maintenance are planned, budgeted, and funded. Simply working harder doing the same things that have been done in the past will not produce efficiencies of the magnitude needed in the future; not only must change be introduced into how things are done, but what is being done must also be reexamined.

The full report can be found here.