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A helicopter flies over a town.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
A helicopter returns to McMurdo Station. The U.S. Antarctic Program's largest research station is in need of major infrastructure improvements, according to a Blue Ribbon Panel established by the National Science Foundation and the White House. 

Capital improvement

Blue Ribbon Panel recommends major investment in USAP infrastructure

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An independent committee charged with assessing the logistics requirements for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site to support research into the 21st century has urged the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site and White House External U.S. government site to invest heavily in infrastructure improvements over the next five years.

The call to action came during a press conference held at the National Academy of Sciences External U.S. government site in Washington, D.C., during which a Blue Ribbon Panel External U.S. government site, established by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) External U.S. government site and NSF, discussed the results of its report, More and Better Science in Antarctica through Increased Logistical Effectiveness Link to PDF file.

In the report, the 12-member panel, chaired by Norm Augustine External U.S. government site, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. External Non-U.S. government site who led a similar review of the USAP in the 1990s, identified deficiencies and areas for investment, as well as suggestions on how to pay for improvements in a tough fiscal environment.

People sit in an auditorium.
NSF Director Subra Suresh listens to the results of the Blue Ribbon Panel review during a July 23 press conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“We will take this report extraordinarily seriously and work very hard so that our actions match the drive and goals that were behind producing this report by this distinguished group,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh External U.S. government site during the hour-long press conference on July 23.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report on logistics and science support follows a 2011 National Research Council study, Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, which identified some of the major research goals in Antarctica for the next couple of decades.

That group, chaired by Dr. Warren Zapol at Harvard Medical School External Non-U.S. government site, recommended a continued focus on climate change research with the development of an observation network capable of long-term monitoring of ice, ocean and atmospheric processes around Antarctica. [See previous article — Eye on the future: NRC panel recommends implementing Antarctic observation network.]

John P. Holdren External U.S. government site, director of OSTP, noted that research in Antarctica has already provided valuable scientific discoveries of the region and the planet.

“The work that U.S researchers have conducted in our Antarctic program has generated insights into atmospheric and ocean processes, the pace and consequences of climate change, the biology of ancient life, and the origins of the universe — to mention just     some of the areas involved. And, yet, clearly there is still much more we can learn from that frozen continent,” he said Monday.

“It’s our responsibility as explorers, curiosity-seekers and residents of this remarkably diverse planet to persevere despite the challenges, and do so in a manner that is both cost effective and environmentally responsible,” he added.

People enter the water.
Photo Credit: Zee Evans/Antarctic Photo Library
Divers work on the pier at Palmer Station, one of the pieces of infrastructure in need of replacement.

In the report’s executive summary Link to PDF file, the Blue Ribbon Panel members said the lack of a long-term plan for investing in infrastructure has led to deterioration of Antarctic facilities.

The report stated, “The Panel identifies the lack of a capital budget for the [USAP] as the root cause of most of the inefficiencies observed — a situation that no successful corporation would ever permit to persist. If a formal, federally endorsed capital budget cannot be provided, then NSF should, at a minimum, formulate a capital plan for U.S. activities in Antarctica that adapts to the needs of science and can be used as a basis for subsequent annual budgeting. The funding of maintenance would likewise benefit from more rigorous planning.”

The panel members visited all three USAP research stations at McMurdo, Palmer and South Pole External U.S. government site during the 2011-12 field season in Antarctica, as well as logistics facilities based in New Zealand, Chile and the United States. [See previous article — Blue Ribbon Panel: Group think tank visits Antarctica to recommend long-term vision for USAP.] A new 152-person facility was dedicated in 2008 at the South Pole, partly the result of the Blue Ribbon Panel led by Augustine in the late 1990s.

“Today, the South Pole Station is in relatively good shape. Unfortunately, one can’t say that for the facilities at McMurdo and at Palmer,” Augustine said as he cited several examples during the press conference, such as inefficient warehousing at McMurdo and the deficient pier at Palmer. The former was established in the mid-1950s for the International Geophysical Year External Non-U.S. government site, while the latter was constructed in the 1960s. 1 2   Next