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Eye on the future

NRC panel recommends implementing Antarctic observation network

 

Remote observatories generating gigabytes of data on the weather from Antarctica’s vast ice sheets, powered by nothing more than wind and sun. An array of buoys and gliders bobbing and cruising through the Southern Ocean. Satellites using ever more powerful sensors to peer through disintegrating ice shelves.

It’s a possible vision from 20 years hence offered by a committee of scientists and experts tasked with identifying and summarizing future research priorities in the Antarctic.

“We think the most important thing is climate change, and what’s going to happen to Antarctica,” said Dr. Warren Zapol, who chaired the National Research Council’s Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the lead U.S. agency responsible for supporting science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, working with the White House Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), initiated a comprehensive review of the nation’s research operations on the southernmost continent.

The National Research Council (NRC) is part of the National Academies — which also includes the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine — that helps shape U.S. policy in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. OSTP advises the White House on matters of science and technology, while the OMB is the part of the executive branch that implements presidential policy.

The recommendations from the 17-member committee, which included a Nobel prize-winning neurologist and numerous polar researchers, many with decades of Antarctic experience, will be handed off to a second panel led by Norm Augustine, the former chair of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Blue Ribbon panel headed by Augustine will examine the logistics side of the U.S. Antarctic Program to determine, among other things, how the research priorities from the NRC committee might affect future logistical needs. Augustine led a similar panel review in 1997 that helped garner congressional support for construction of a new research station at the geographic South Pole. The new station was officially dedicated in January 2008.

“I think it is fair to say that the committee conducted a very thorough study of scientific trends in Antarctic research. [It] was very thoughtful in posing some of the key questions about the nature of the research that will drive Antarctic science in the coming decades,” said Scott Borg, Antarctic Sciences Division director in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

Scientists have conducted continuous research in the Antarctic since the 1950s, making numerous discoveries about the continent, the planet and beyond over the decades. For example, researchers have discovered how dynamically the continent’s ice sheets can change from studying its past behavior though ice- and sediment-core records, as well as real-time observations from satellites and aircraft. The research is important for understanding how Antarctica, which holds about 90 percent of the world’s ice, will contribute to sea-level rise in the coming centuries.

The committee’s report balances its recommendations between big-picture science that focuses on the Antarctic’s role in global processes and pioneering research for discovery’s sake.

“These will be the important drivers for the next 20 years,” said Robin Bell, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth and a member of the NRC committee.

Bell led a team during the 2007-09 International Polar Year — the largest coordinated international scientific effort in five decades — that mapped a mountain range under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet the size of the Alps. The research fundamentally changed scientists’ understanding of ice sheet behavior.

Topping the list of scientific questions identified by the NRC panel in the coming years: How will Antarctica’s vast ice sheets contribute to changes in global sea level?

Researchers have already detected profound changes in the marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet, while changes in the larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet have been more difficult to quantify.

In particular, the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions on Earth, where several ice shelves have already collapsed within recent years, allowing the glaciers that once fed into the ice shelves to flow faster. Other icy parts of West Antarctica are also melting and receding faster as changes in atmospheric circulation alter oceanic circulation, which affects the ice shelves and glaciers.

“How do you take a picture of that and figure out what’s going on? You can’t,” Zapol said of the processes under way causing ocean water to thin ice shelves from below, allowing the glaciers behind them to flow faster toward the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise.

“It’s not like watching Arctic ice melt away and black sea turning up. That’s pretty obvious,” he added. “How are you going to measure [Antarctica]? It’s going to require fancy radars. It’s going to require probably autonomous underwater vehicles. It’s going to require ships.”

The committee’s most ambitious recommendation is to implement an Antarctic Observing Network, similar to what is being done in the warming Arctic with similar goals.

“An observing system to capture the nature of change in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is essential to efforts to project how change will occur in the poles and globally,” Bell noted.

The report recommends “establishing a new infrastructure for sustained observations capable of detecting and recording the full suite of environmental changes occurring over decades within the Antarctic system of atmosphere, oceans, land and ice; to further the understanding of the causes and mechanisms of change and develop the capability to predict the course of future changes; and to better manage the continent for future generations.”

Some of those long-term observations are already under way. For example, the Antarctic automatic weather station network started as a U.S. program in 1980 with only a few stations. It has expanded to more than 100 locations across Antarctica from 12 different nations. A network of GPS and seismic stations has taken shape in recent years to monitor the movement of ice and the bedrock below.

Zapol noted that actually developing an observation network as proposed by the committee would require U.S. leadership but also the collective efforts of a broad coalition of national Antarctic programs, especially in today’s more budget-conscious environment.

“It’s doable. A lot of it needs international collaboration,” he said, adding that a survey of Antarctic researchers identified the observing network, coupled with better computer models, as the No. 1 priority for the science community.

But the spirit of scientific discovery that began more than a century ago with the quest to find the magnetic South Pole by European explorers must also continue, according to the NRC committee report.

The committee identified several key questions related to future discovery, such as retrieving climate records found in ice and ocean sediments, studying the unique adaptations of polar organisms, and exploring the universe with ground-based telescopes from the South Pole.

“It’s such a fount of discoveries. There are so many wonderful questions you can ask and get the answers to there,” said Zapol, whose own research into the physiology of Weddell seals over nine field seasons between the 1970s and 1990s resulted in numerous findings about mammalian adaptations for diving.

His team also developed one of the first diving computers for their research. Zapol later went on to lead a team at Massachusetts General Hospital that pioneered the treatment of hypoxic human newborns with inhaled nitric oxide, a technique now used to save the lives of ten thousand babies each year in the United States.

Based on the committee’s survey, there are plenty of scientists waiting to make further discoveries. More than three-quarters of those who answered the questionnaire believe there are plenty of students ready to become the next generation of polar scientists.

“We have some very positive things in there. People really want to do this. It’s such an amazing place, so maybe it’s not so surprising,” he said.

Borg said the NRC report, combined with the upcoming Blue Ribbon findings, will play an important role in shaping the nation’s future priorities in Antarctic research.

“Once we have both reports in hand, I think we will then have a clearer picture of the potential future directions of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the science support and logistics needed to achieve that vision,” he said. “It’s a good time to have this dialogue with both the U.S. science community and international collaborators.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs