NSF Responds to Antarctic Logistics Report

With plans for a new floating dock at McMurdo Sound and robotic transportation to the South Pole, there's a kind of change in climate coming to the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Last July, a panel organized by NSF, and led by retired chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin Norman Augustine, issued a detailed report with recommendations for how to upgrade and improve the efficiency of its logistical capabilities.

This week, NSF issued a summary response to that report. In a letter dated 14 March accompanying the document, then-NSF Director Subra Suresh noted some progress already made toward implementing these recommendations, and that the agency is "in the process of developing a longer-range implementation strategy to respond accordingly." NSF, for example, has begun planning to upgrade the facilities and safety regimes (such as the fire-suppression systems) at USAP's primary station, McMurdo, and at Palmer Station. USAP's third outpost on the continent, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, was overhauled in 2008.

NSF has already taken action on some of the more straightforward concerns expressed by Augustine's panel, such as constructing an improved pier and a floating dock at Palmer Station to allow research and supply ships to avoid an underwater rock ledge and improved health conditions in the stations. Perhaps one of the more subtle, yet significant, changes now in effect are the strengthened requirements for scientific proposals, the next round of which are due this April. The report had recommended that NSF lean on Antarctic scientists to keep a sharper eye on the costs of instrumentation deployment and operation support by considering those costs in the review and selection of science projects. NSF took note and has included "pretty pointed" language about that, says Kelly Falkner, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, which includes USAP. It's not enough to think about the scientific requirements; NSF now instructs scientists to consider how well equipment will function in the field, how easily it can be deployed, and what its operational needs will be.

"It might take a little while to develop that [way of thinking] in the community, but there's a part of the community already on board," Falkner says. "Scientists are problem solvers."

The panelists had flagged other issues that fall somewhat out of NSF's sole purview, including the need to restore the U.S. icebreaker fleet to supply McMurdo and concerns over sufficient high-bandwidth communications from the continent, particularly with regard to data-intensive projects such as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and the South Pole Telescope. In the first case, NSF replied that it is participating in an interagency effort led by the U.S. Coast Guard to determine overall U.S. needs for a new polar-class icebreaker. In the shorter term, Falkner says, the Coast Guard's cutter Polar Star (originally commissioned in 1976 and overhauled from 2010 to 2012) is on schedule to be ready to break through the ice for the 2013 to 2014 research season.

Augustine and the other panel members had many recommendations for upgrading and streamlining transportation, including using robotics technology for overland transport to the South Pole Station. NSF has embraced that proposal, which could potentially save $2 million annually by improving efficiency and doubling traverses. But implementing those plans rests on securing funding, which NSF's response notes will be included in a "future budget request."

Another recommendation was to reduce the size of the expensive-to-operate LC-130 fleet of ice-equipped aircraft from 10 to six; these aircraft are kept busy servicing the stations and ferrying scientists to research locations. One suggestion had been to build a compacted snow runway at the South Pole Station, to allow lighter wheeled aircraft to land—but that may prove to be more expensive in the long run, NSF's response notes. Similarly, a suggestion to build a compacted snow runway at McMurdo might prove unworkable due to climate change—seasonal warming over the last three seasons has made it difficult for wheeled aircraft to land there. For now, Falkner says, NSF will be working with the Department of Defense over the summer to determine how best to get moving.