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Photo Credit: Henry Kaiser, Sarah Anderson, Steven Profazier, Bill Meurer and Glenn Grant (clockwise from top left)
The new Antarctic Integrated System Sciences program at NSF's Office of Polar Programs will bring together multiple disciplines to unlock some of the most complex questions in science. Disciplines include oceanography, glaciology, geophysics and perhaps even astrophysics.

Setting a different course

New NSF OPP program combines multiple disciplines to answer more complex questions about Antarctica and beyond

If recent Antarctic research has taught us anything, it’s that the polar regions are an important and dynamic component in global processes, not merely a passive and static witness to Earth’s unfolding dramas.

Perhaps the foremost example in the world today is climate change. Rising temperatures, we have heard, could cause sea level to rise as much as 65 meters if all of Antarctica’s ice melted. If it happened fast enough, that could shut down ocean currents that moderate temperatures in northern high-latitude places like Europe.

But the picture is not that simple, and the computer models still incomplete. For example, how does the interchange between the ice, oceans and atmosphere affect the ice shelves, the keystones holding back the ice sheets? It’s a question that requires understanding atmospheric processes, ocean currents and ice sheet dynamics.

It’s a question that no single discipline can necessarily answer.

It’s the sort of question that excites Kelly Falkner, program manager of the newly created Antarctic Integrated System Sciences (AISS) department in the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) at the National Science Foundation.

The fledgling AISS program will administer projects that transcend disciplinary boundaries. It will consider proposals that delve for a deeper, more complex understanding of Antarctica and its past, present and future roles on the planet.

Currently, most OPP science projects, while they do sometimes spill into other program areas, are limited to one of five discipline areas — astrophysics and aeronomy, organisms and ecosystems, Earth sciences, glaciology, and oceans and atmosphere.

“This program that I’m starting up is going beyond that, really getting people to integrate right from the start, using their various expertises to address questions that are not easily posed in the context of one discipline,” Falkner said.

A chemical oceanographer with 15 years’ experience working in the Arctic, Falkner seems particularly suited for the job. OPP’s Arctic division already has an Integrated System Sciences program with which she previously worked.

The idea, she said, is not to cull projects from existing programs, “but rather to provide a niche for things that we can’t fund with our current structure readily.

“The basic discipline programs have been quite successful,” she added. “You can’t argue that they need to give up what they’re doing. But you can argue that you can leverage off of them and go that next step of integration and make some serious headway in some areas that are pretty important.”

There seems to be broad consensus on that point.

A workshop was held in June 2007 in Arlington, Va., to determine if such a program would be worthwhile. The panel included practicing Antarctic scientists and leading investigators from related, non-polar disciplines and programs. The attendees represented a broad spectrum of Earth and environmental sciences, institutions and careers.

A 20-page report from that meeting concluded, “… the creation of AISS as a dedicated program to foster cross-disciplinary research is welcomed and justified. It is expected that the AISS program will encourage urgently needed research that might not otherwise be performed.

Check the Report

“There are abundant, compelling scientific questions that would contribute to a diverse and robust portfolio of AISS projects now and in the foreseeable future. AISS will complement and create synergy with on-going and future OPP disciplinary programs …”

Bob Bindschadler, chief scientist with the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is the principal investigator on one of the first projects funded under AISS.

Bindschadler and his colleagues are studying the interchange of ocean and ice at the continental edge. They believe warm, salty ocean water is melting the ice sheet from below.

An International Polar Year project co-funded with NASA, the study involves disciplines like glaciology and oceanography.

“I regard this program as not just bringing field glaciology and field oceanography together,” Bindschadler said, “but also combining both of those with the cutting edge of ocean-ice modeling right now — so it is highly interdisciplinary.

“It was a perfect match for the AISS, because it was important research, first of all, and it did involve multiple disciplines, and it was necessary to have those multiple disciplines. And it fell outside where the other programs main effort was going. I was very happy that the AISS appeared at the time.”

Another ambitious AISS programs pulls together three, separate projects focusing on the Larsen B ice shelf. The ice shelf, roughly the size of Rhode Island, broke off and rapidly collapsed in 2002. The idea is to create a multi-disciplinary team to find out what happens to a system in the context of such dramatic loss.

To answer a host of complementary questions, researchers will study ice dynamics, biological systems and ocean circulation in the Antarctic Peninsula where the event occurred.

“[AISS] will provide opportunities that we know haven’t been able to take on because of … the scope of complexity of the issues addressed, and it will hopefully encourage some synthesis,” Falkner said.

For Bindschadler, the fresh approach offers him an opportunity to learn something new as well.

“I’m finding myself in unfamiliar water. It’s really fun to work with a new set of collaborators,” said the veteran glaciologist. “I don’t know a lot of oceanography, but I suspect in two years I’ll know a lot more than I know now.”

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