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US Antarctic research needs funding boost and efficiency drive

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

NSF/USAP photo

Posted on behalf of Susan Moran.

Like an iceberg, US-funded science in Antarctica is bottom-heavy, and research is suffering as a result. According to a new report for the National Science Foundation, the US Antarctic Program (USAP) devotes nine times more person-days in Antarctica to logistics efforts than it does to actual scientific research. That must change in order for the United States to maintain a leadership role on the continent, but science will have to take another hit first.

The 224-page report, ‘More and better science in antarctica through increased logistical effectiveness’, was published yesterday and argues that US research facilities in Antarctica desperately need an upgrade and an overhaul. The panel recommends three ways to ensure those improvements over the next four years: cut contract labour by 20%, increase the USAP’s annual budget by 6% and divert 6% of the planned spending on science to upgrade the science-support system.  The report stresses that any up-front cuts to science will pay off within a few years by actually expanding the amount of scientific activity that can be undertaken while making research facilities safer.

“This can be done, but not without pain,” said Norman Augustine, chairman of the 12-member panel, during a press conference.  “It’s not a happy solution, but being pragmatists and wanting to see something done, I think we’re all convinced if we don’t do something fairly soon, the science will just disappear.”

The USAP’s roughly US$300-million budget supports work centred around three main research bases: the McMurdo (by far the largest), Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer stations.

Among the biggest problems cited in the report are ageing icebreakers, unreliable broadband communications for the South Pole station, and the fact that McMurdo has only a sole runway, Pegasus. (As the only runway at the station, it would seriously impact operations if Pegasus had to close even for a short period due to melting problems or if an aircraft or other equipment accident blocked the landing path). One of the biggest costs of conducting science at the bottom of the world — some 16,000 kilometres from the United States — is fuel. But fuel costs can be trimmed by, for example, chartering smaller commercial vessels to resupply stations, according to the report. More savings can come from expanding the use of wind and solar power at the stations, energy-conserving buildings, improving inventory control and streamlining flights to the South Pole.

Hugh Ducklow, a panel member and director of the Long Term Ecological Research Project at Palmer Station, on the west Antarctic Peninsula, told Nature that the United States’ leadership position in Antarctica depends on making improvements in support of scientific research. “Other countries are now making really substantial new investments in Antarctic research and are vying for leadership — most notably China and Korea,” he says. “The real serious question is, is the US able to keep up?”

This article was corrected on 1 August. The original version incorrectly described McMurdo’s runway as ‘accident-prone’. It also described expenditures on logistics (vs actual research) as 90% of the USAP programme; in fact, the 90% refers to the effort (in person-days) spent on logistics as opposed to research.


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    Janifer Woolmar said:

    The fact that about 90% of the total expenditures go towards operations, rather than supporting actual scientific research is very disturbing. There is some loop hole in the system.

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