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National Science Foundation/United States Antarctic Program: Antarctica Today


The National Science Foundation (NSF), through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), coordinates U.S. scientific research in the Antarctic. NSF is an independent federal agency and is the only federal agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF administers the USAP as well as an Arctic Research Program.

History: The U.S. scientific presence in Antarctica began in 1830, when James Eights became the first U.S. scientist on the continent. In 1841, a U.S. expedition mapped part of the Antarctic coast, proving that Antarctica was a continent. The USAP was established in 1959, after the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, during which 12 nations established 60 research stations in Antarctica. The largest single expedition to Antarctica took place in 1947 when 13 ships and 4,700 personnel were dispatched to the region for the U.S. Navy's "Operation Highjump."

Scientific goals: The program's goals are: to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems; to understand the region's effects on (and responses to) global processes such as climate; and to use Antarctica's unique features for scientific research that cannot be done as well elsewhere. Research is done in Antarctica only when it cannot be performed at any other location on Earth.

Among the scientific disciplines encompassed by this broad mandate are astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.

Program officers at NSF's Arlington, Va. headquarters administer grants to scientists nationwide interested in conducting research in Antarctica. Program officers also manage and direct the operations of the stations, ships, and aircraft that the support the research. Grants are issued only after proposals have been peer reviewed.

Research stations: To achieve U.S. scientific goals, NSF operates three U.S. scientific stations year-round on the continent.

McMurdo Station, located on the Ross Sea, Antarctica's largest station serves as a "gateway" to Antarctica for U.S. scientific field teams as well as the hub for most of the U.S. scientific activity. During the austral summer, the population of scientists and support personnel at McMurdo peaks at 1,100 people. In the austral winter (from February to late October), the population drops to roughly 250 persons. Population and infrastructure at McMurdo are equivalent to a small U.S. town from which operations are conducted across a landmass the size of the U.S.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Located 841 statute miles inland from McMurdo, at the geographic South Pole, this station accommodates a maximum of 220 people (80 of whom are construction workers or construction-support personnel) during the Southern Hemisphere's summer (austral summer). The winter population numbers around 60 people. Temperatures at the Pole average minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round; average austral winter lows are in the range of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit

Astronomy and astrophysics are the primary scientific work carried out at the South Pole. Established during the International Geophysical Year in 1957, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is named for the two men who raced to discover the South Pole in 1911 and 1912. A U.S. station was built at the current site in the 1950s. The geodeisic dome that is a prominent feature of the present station was built in 1974. The station is being rebuilt and modernized; reconstruction is scheduled for completion in 2007.

Palmer Station. Located on Anvers Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region, operates independently from the other two station and relies on the R/V Laurence M. Gould for transport of passengers and supplies from a port at the southern tip of South America. The R/V Laurence M. Gould provides onboard research support in marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics and can support science in other areas of the southern oceans.

People: Some 3,500 Americans are involved each year in the program's research and logistical activities. Women constitute roughly 34 percent of the scientific and support workforce. Every year, more than 800 scientists and their support teams conduct research in Antarctica's unique environment.

Budget: The USAP's budget for FY 2002 was $236.23 million. NSF's budget for FY 2002 totaled about $4.8 billion.

Facilities and Logistics: NSF's Office of Polar Programs (OPP) provides scientists with logistics, operational, and laboratory support in Antarctica. This includes the three U.S. research stations with sophisticated research laboratories, temporary field research camps, the ice-strengthened research ship R/V Laurence M. Gould, the icebreaking research ship R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, a fleet of ski-equipped LC-130 cargo aircraft, Twin Otter airplanes, and helicopters.

As the manager of the national research program in Antarctica, NSF oversees and manages a network of military and civilian support providers to facilitate research in Antarctica. This responsibility includes:

The U.S. Coast Guard: A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker provides channel breaking and vessel escort at McMurdo Station, allowing access to the station by cargo and fuel resupply vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard also supports US treaty inspection missions under the Antarctic Treaty, and provides research support to marine projects.

The Air National Guard: The 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard flies and maintains the fleet of ski-equipped LC-130 "Hercules" aircraft, the only such aircraft squadron in the world. The "Hercs" as they are known are the workhorses of the U.S. Antarctic Program; transporting scientists and support personnel, and all continental transport to South Pole Station (including everything needed to rebuild Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station).

U.S. Transportation Command: The United States Transportation Command (USTC) provides "heavy" logistical support for airlift and sealift of bulk materiel and fuel. The two main elements of this support consist of:
  • The U.S. Air Force: The U.S. Air Force's 452nd Air Mobility Wing, based at March Air Force Base in California, provides additional logistical support at the beginning and the end of the austral summer with C-141 jet cargo aircraft. The 62nd Airlift Wing from McChord Air Force Base in Washington State provides C-17 Globemaster aircraft for heavy lift capabilities.
  • Military Sealift Command: Military Sealift Command (MSC) supports the USAP by providing an ice-strengthened vessel and an ice-strengthened tanker that resupply McMurdo Station annually with cargo and fuel. The bulk of materials move to and from Antarctica every year by ship. The freighter is also used to return cargo and all the annual accumulated waste from Antarctica to the U.S. for processing.
Civilian Contractors: The NSF also utilizes a mix of civilian contractors to support base operations and other logistical support functions not provided by the US military. These contracts include
  • Raytheon Polar Services: Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC), of Centennial, Colo., is the NSF prime contractor for the USAP. Among their tasks are the operation and maintenance of the stations and research vessels, science support, and engineering, construction, and coordination of all the logistics needed to support the research program.
  • Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated (PHI): Since 1996 Petroleum Helicopters Inc. of LaFayette, Louisiana operates a fleet of four helicopters at McMurdo Station that supports field research activities in the Dry Valleys and Ross Island region. Prior to 1996 the US Navy provided helicopter support.
  • Kenn Borek Air Ltd.: Based in Calgary, Canada, Kenn Borek Air Ltd. operates two DeHavilland DHC-6 "Twin Otter" aircraft that support deep field science activities. Capable of landing at rough, un-prepared locations, these aircraft are used for sites not accessible by LC-130. Although primarily used in a utility role, the twin otters are also used for remote sensing and aero-geophysical survey work.
Antarctica by the Numbers: Antarctica once was part of an enormous and temperate supercontinent called Gondwanaland. It broke free of its connection to other landmasses millions of years ago and began its southward drift. Today, it is a continent of extremes. For example:
  • The continental landmass is 5.4 million square miles, an area larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined.
  • More than 98 percent of the landmass is covered by an ice sheet that has accumulated over millions of years. The ice sheet averages just over 7,000 feet thick, but is more than twice that thick in places.
  • Antarctica holds 90 percent of the world's ice, which in turn represents 70 percent of the world's fresh water. Yet precipitation in the interior averages only a few inches annually, making Antarctica one of the world's great deserts.
  • The ice sheet at the South Pole is in constant motion, moving about 30 feet every year and necessitating an annual remarking of the geographic South Pole.
  • As the ice moves out toward the edge of the continent, it breaks off, "calving" the world's largest icebergs, including one that was estimated to be similar in area to the state of Delaware.
  • In the unlikely event that the Antarctic ice sheet melted suddenly, it would raise sea levels worldwide an estimated 200 feet, submersing much of the Gulf and Atlantic coastal areas of the U.S.
  • Winds blowing from the interior plateau often reach speeds of 80 mph at the coast and can peak at 180 mph.
  • The lowest surface temperature ever recorded on Earth was - 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit at Russia's Vostok Station in the continent's interior.

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