Eye on the future
NRC panel recommends implementing Antarctic observation network
Posted October 7, 2011
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.
List of NRC Committee Future Priorities
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. [See related article: Planning for the future.] 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.
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. [See previous articles: Alps in Antarctica and Frozen at the bottom.]
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?