There’s no continent like Antarctica, and there’s no science like Antarctic science. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) is now trying to figure out where the field should be 20 years from now — by gathering the 100 most compelling science questions that can be answered in or from the frozen continent.
The exercise is called a ‘horizon scan‘, and SCAR officials say that it will lay out priorities for future research and feed into long-term conservation strategies. Of course, there is no shortage of strategy documents for Antarctic science, but SCAR hopes to transcend the usual navel-gazing, says Mahlon Kennicutt, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University and former president of SCAR.
“A horizon scan goes beyond that, looking much further into the future,” he says. “It’s not directed at telling people what to do, just telling us what the future directions in science are.” Horizon scans are rooted in conservation science and have never been done before for Antarctica.
Anyone can submit a question for the scan. The first round of solicitation ends on 15 June, but SCAR will probably go through several rounds of asking for input, Kennicutt says.
The questions so far range from the vague (“How can institutions adapt to social and ecological dynamics?”) to the incredibly specific (“Can icebergs, apart from just being a source of iron, also act as a source of cyanobacteria to the Southern Ocean?”).
The final list will be chosen by 50 scientists at a workshop in New Zealand next April. It may include 100 questions or fewer, depending on what the group thinks accurately represents the major questions facing Antarctic science. And although no one is obligated to pay attention to SCAR’s list, Kennicutt thinks it may serve as a guide for research priorities in countries that have relatively small Antarctic programmes and don’t have the resources of, say, the US National Science Foundation.
If the horizon scan works, SCAR plans to revisit the process every 4–5 years, to catch science as it changes. After all, says Kennicutt, “who would have predicted so many subglacial lakes 10 years ago?”