McMurdo Station in 2013.

McMurdo Station in 2013.

Reinhart Piuk, NSF

Overhaul in the works for aging U.S. Antarctic station

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to spend $300 million to upgrade its flagship Antarctic research station.

NSF's Office of Polar Programs presented its most recent plans for an overhaul of core facilities at McMurdo Station, the biggest of the three U.S. Antarctic stations, at a meeting last week of the National Academies’ Polar Research Board (PRB). The planned redesign is in response to a 2012 report by a Blue Ribbon Panel convened to study NSF’s science facilities on the southernmost continent.

McMurdo, on the southern tip of Ross Island in West Antarctica, started out in 1955 as an expeditionary base from which to construct a station at the South Pole. Today, McMurdo is the primary entry point for U.S. scientists in Antarctica, hosting 1200 people during the 4-month austral summer. But the station is actually a hodgepodge of more than 100 buildings, many more than 50 years old. “It’s not designed to do the things it’s doing today,” said Brian Stone, head of the Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics section of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, at the meeting. “We haven’t had a major structural investment in McMurdo in about 40 years,” he added. “I think we’re due.”

The Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project, Stone said, would replace and reconfigure various scientific, operational, and logistics support facilities at McMurdo, as part of a larger plan to upgrade all Antarctic stations. McMurdo’s primary laboratory space, the Crary laboratory, was built in the late 1980s and early 1990s; although NSF is planning future upgrades, they will not be a part of the AIMS project.

AIMS would cost an estimated $300 million, Stone said. The money would come from the agency’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account, and not from the $300 million annual budget for Antarctic logistics and infrastructure. The overhaul would start in fiscal year 2019 and take about 8 years, with no direct impact on ongoing scientific activities.

Planned upgrades to McMurdo Station under the AIMS program include collecting its core facilities into one interconnected complex (in green).

Planned upgrades to McMurdo Station under the AIMS program include collecting its core facilities into one interconnected complex (in green).

NSF Office of Polar Programs

The project entered a yearlong preliminary design phase in October, but the master plan will collect all of the station’s core facilities—including dining, housing, medical facilities, fire station, industrial workspaces, recreation facilities, and some maintenance facilities—into one complex (shown in green in this schematic). That would ultimately reduce McMurdo’s current 91 buildings to 21 buildings, requiring both less staffing and a smaller vehicle fleet to execute operations. AIMS is also exploring ways to improve fuel consumption, possibly by expanding the station’s wind farm of 3 turbines, or by including photovoltaics.  The 2012 report made multiple recommendations to cut costs to help pay for the needed upgrades, including reductions both in personnel and in fuel consumption at the stations.  But Stone did not present any estimate of the savings that might result from the improvements.

NSF hopes to solicit input from the Antarctic science community through a website (not yet active) as well as at meetings such as next week’s annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

PRB members were cautiously enthusiastic about the plans. “It’s a great plan,” said PRB member and seismologist Sridhar Anandakrishnan of Pennsylvania State University. “I hope I’m around to see it.”

*Update, 9 December, 1:40 p.m.: This item has been updated to indicate that McMurdo hosts as many as 1200 people in the austral summer, a number that includes both scientists and support staff.