Fuel, other factors cause NSF to curtail operations and science
Posted September 5, 2008
The first U.S. Air Force C-17s landed at Pegasus Airfield near McMurdo Station this week, bringing in new personnel, equipment and some fresh food for the 125 people who spent the austral winter at the research station.
This year’s start to the 2008-09 U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) field season is a bit different from those in the recent past. The planes are arriving on the Ice about two weeks later than normal to prepare the station for full-on summer operations beginning in early October. Additionally, the program will no longer construct a temporary airstrip on the sea ice near McMurdo, opting to use its permanent airfield at Pegasus, which is about 30 kilometers away on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Both moves are cost-saving measures as the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the USAP, seeks to make up an approximate $35 million shortfall in its operating budget for the 2009 fiscal year. Skyrocketing fuel costs, a weak dollar, a flat budget in 2008 and another flat budget expected for 2009 are the biggest reasons for the deficit.
“The U.S. Antarctic Program, by law, is required to have a balanced budget. We therefore will have to make significant cuts in virtually every aspect of the program,” Karl Erb, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP), told the New Zealand press earlier this year.
Fuel costs increased by $8 million during the current fiscal year, and the NSF expects it to increase by another $19 million in the upcoming field season ($7 million of that is for vessel operations). NSF’s logistics operating budget is $228 million.
OPP recently posted an online announcement to the USAP research community about the economic situation, including a list of projects that the program will need to curtail or defer as it struggles to balance its budget.
“In light of this situation, we have to make difficult decisions that will affect all parts of the program,” wrote Scott Borg, OPP Division Director of Antarctic Sciences, and Brian Stone, OPP Division Director of Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics, to the program’s grantees.
Deferred projects include the replacement of a deteriorating pier at Palmer Station and construction of fuel tanks at McMurdo Station.
The NSF is also reducing flights, cutting out C-17 transport between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo during the middle of the season, a 20 percent reduction. The New York Air National Guard, which operates the ski-equipped LC-130s, will only fly about 305 missions this season, down from 411 originally planned. In addition, a number of science projects are scaling back, particularly deep-field expeditions that require LC-130 air support.
“Lack of funding for research support and logistics also means we will not be able to sustain normal rates of new [science] project funding this year,” Borg and Stone wrote. “The overall project success rate will probably slip below 20 percent, and only a few new proposals requiring 2009 deployments are being funded.”
Of the roughly 150 research projects scheduled for the 2008-09 season, NSF expects reductions to affect about 25, according to an Aug. 29 story in the journal Science. For instance, the deep-field meteorite hunt led by Ralph Harvey with Case Western Reserve University will be confined to working out of McMurdo Station this year. The same goes for POLENET, an International Polar Year project installing GPS and seismic instruments around West Antarctica to monitor the ice sheet and the bedrock response as the ice ebbs and flows.
The USAP isn’t the only science program feeling the crunch. Antarctica New Zealand reported on its Web site that it would need to budget for a further 60 to 70 percent fuel price increase, which would require it to cut upwards of $500,000 from its operations for the upcoming field season. One cut may include a planned Internet bandwidth increase at Scott Base, located about 3 kilometers from McMurdo.
The United States and New Zealand Antarctic programs cooperate closely, sharing logistics and collaborating scientifically. New Zealand, with the USAP’s assistance, is constructing a small wind farm that it hopes will provide most of its energy needs. McMurdo will also benefit from the alternative energy, with the project slated for completion in 2010.
Green light on traverse
The changing times have necessitated some new ways of doing business on the Ice. At the top of the list: The NSF has given the green light for the South Pole Traverse to begin this season, hoping to save about $1.5 million in flight hour costs and 330,000 gallons of fuel by using an over-snow tractor train to deliver fuel and supplies to South Pole Station rather than the LC-130.
Begun in 2002 as a proof-of-concept, the traverse basically consists of large tractors hauling sleds across 1,600 kilometers of snow and ice. It took the team four seasons to establish the flagged and compacted snow route between McMurdo and South Pole stations.
Last season, after a one-year hiatus, a mostly new traverse team re-established the route using Case and Caterpillar Challenger tractors. Paul Thur led the traverse last year, and will do so again beginning in October for its first full operational season.
Originally scheduled to make two roundtrips to Pole, the traverse instead will make its delivery of fuel and equipment (including a Caterpillar Challenger 95) to the South Pole Station, and then head toward the blankness of East Antarctica to support a science project studying a subglacial mountain range — the Antarctic Gamburtsev Province (AGAP).
The 10-person team hopes to deliver about 264,000 pounds of cargo to South Pole and AGAP, along with 55,000 gallons of fuel to the South Pole and 50,000 gallons to the AGAP field camp. The traverse will use up to 80,000 gallons on the trail this year.
“We’ll have a better idea after we go with the big tractors once what our fuel consumption will be,” said Thur, who works for Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC), the prime contractor for NSF. “It may not be 80,000 total burned. That’s my rough estimate. I hope [the estimate is] way over.”
Thur said it would take about 25 days to reach the Pole, with a slightly faster return time of 18 days after completing its mission to AGAP and making a stop at 90 degrees south en route home. “Route maintenance shouldn’t be a big deal. Compaction should be better,” he said. “We shouldn’t get stuck anywhere — I say that now — we’re going in pretty heavy.”
Rick Campbell, a senior project specialist with RPSC, wrote the original proposal for the traverse program, and is excited that the years of work are coming to fruition. “We’re no longer proof-of-concept or [wondering] can we do it,” he said. “We know we can do it. Now we’re moving forward to doing it well. I love the efficiencies that we’re realizing, and the teamwork we have.”
Much of the cargo space on this week’s flights accommodated additional equipment for the traverse, including new vehicles, sleds, fuel bladders and specially designed spreader bars that allow the tractors to carry four bladders side by side.
“It’s a lot of stuff,” Thur said.
Despite the hardships of the job — the equipment operators and mechanics spend nearly the whole summer field season, more than three months, on their own in the Antarctic backcountry — there are plenty of applicants for spots on the team, according to Thur. The most important trait, he said, is the ability to get along.
“Skills are secondary compared to attitude,” he said.