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A person hikes up a rock face in a cold place.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
A geologist hikes up a rock outcrop in the Transantarctic Mountains, a remote region in the world's most isolated continent. A panel of scientists and other experts recently completed a report recommending creation of an observation network in Antarctica, as part of a 20-year plan.

Eye on the future

NRC panel recommends implementing Antarctic observation network

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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 External Non-U.S. government site, who chaired the National Research Council’s External Non-U.S. government site  Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, 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) External U.S. government site and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) External U.S. government site, 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 External Non-U.S. government site — which also includes the National Academy of Sciences External Non-U.S. government site, National Academy of Engineering External Non-U.S. government site and Institute of Medicine External Non-U.S. government site — 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 External U.S. government site, the former chair of the National Academy of Engineering.

List of NRC Committee Future Priorities
  • Lead the development of a large-scale, interdisciplinary observing network and support a new generation of robust earth system models
  • Continue to support a wide variety of basic research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to yield a new generation of discoveries
  • Design and implement improved mechanisms for international collaboration
  • Exploit the host of emerging technologies including cyberinfrastructure and novel and robust sensors
  • Coordinate an integrated polar educational program
  • Continue strong logistical support for Antarctic science.

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 External U.S. government site. 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 External U.S. government site director in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site.

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 External Non-U.S. government site, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory External Non-U.S. government site and a member of the NRC committee.

Bell led a team during the 2007-09 International Polar Year External Non-U.S. government site — 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?

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.1 2   Next