Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, remotest, and highest (on average) continent. The United States has been involved continuously in Antarctic projects for over 40 years. The U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel (hereafter "the Panel") perceives that the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) has three principal justifications and objectives: presence, science, and stewardship. National prestige is involved in participation in activity in Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole, much as there is in involvement in the space program.
The stated U.S. policy toward Antarctica is that the continent should be maintained as a peaceful territory, free of national claims and available for the benefit of all humankind. The Antarctic Treaty system has created a political environment in Antarctica that today is largely characterized by cooperation and mutual understanding. Nonetheless, seven nations have made claims to parts of Antarctica, some overlapping, and potential disagreements remain an underlying reality.
The substantial U.S. presence in Antarctica is viewed by the Panel as a critical, perhaps the most critical, element in assuring the region's continued political stability. In addition, working in cooperation with many nations, the U.S. plays an important role in preserving a fragile and nearly pristine ecological system which serves as an indicator of future environmental trends throughout the planet.
Because of the unique physical conditions in Antarctica, the continent also is a one-of-a-kind scientific laboratory for the investigation of phenomena which range from the microscopic to the Earth-shaping. Following are examples of the latter:
Data collected to understand many of these and related phenomena show fluctuations caused by extraneous influences over various time scales (seasonal, annual, decadal, etc.). However, conclusions drawn from these studies are valid only with continuous and regular sampling to build statistical confidence. Many Antarctic measurements have been made for decades, and the continuity of this scientific record is vital.
In carrying out its Antarctic program, the U.S. maintains year-round facilities at three locations on the continent, operates two ice-capable research vessels, and supports temporary field sites, some consisting of no more than one or two tents or a robotic instrument capsule. U.S. activities in Antarctica are currently budgeted and managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as principal agent for the U.S. Government.
Changing circumstances, particularly federal funding pressures, have resulted in a major ongoing realignment of support functions in the Antarctic, including the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from its historic key roles in early exploration and, since the 1950s, research support. As the Navy withdraws, the Department of Defense is shifting heavy-lift (LC-130) air transport functions to the Air National Guard, and the NSF is transferring many other functions to civilian contractors. As a result, this is a particularly significant period, not only in terms of the need for intense management attention, but also as an opportunity to search for new means of reducing costs and re-inventing ways of conducting Antarctic activities.
A consequence of the NSF's traditional focus on the conduct of science, together with the character of the federal budgeting process which, unlike commercial practice, does not ordinarily include a depreciation account to provide for the renewal of fixed assets is that aging U.S. facilities in Antarctica are costly to maintain and, in some cases, of arguable safety. The Panel believes that the U.S. would not send a ship to sea or a spacecraft to orbit in the condition of many of the facilities in Antarctica and especially those at the South Pole. The efforts of the individuals assigned responsibility for operating these facilities are heroic nonetheless, steps need to be taken without delay to remedy the existing conditions.
The cost of constructing a replacement South Pole station has been recently estimated to be in the range of $150M-$200M and would take about eight years to budget and build. The Panel believes the station design which has been under consideration should be reduced in size and cost and that significant additional savings must be generated in the Antarctic program to offset a substantial fraction of the cost of a replacement facility.
The Panel has offered a series of 12 specific recommendations, each of which is discussed in this report and all of which are aggregated in Appendix IV. Overall conclusions of the Panel are as follows:
The Panel's principal conclusion is that the South Pole Station needs to be replaced soon for economic, safety and operational reasons and that modest upgrades are needed at Palmer and McMurdo Stations. The Panel understands that urgent safety shortcomings at South Pole Station will be resolved with the application of $25M funded in FY97. Other renovations (a minimum of $15M at Palmer and McMurdo Stations) and replacement of South Pole Station should be funded by a downsizing of the previously proposed new South Pole Station design, reducing the cost to $125M excluding $5M of interim expenses to keep the existing station functional until replacement; a cumulative reallocation of $20M from science grants and science support over FY98-FY02; and the generation of savings of at least $30M through cost reduction actions already underway, augmented by the recommendations contained in Section 7. Although this represents a considerable reduction in new funding needs relative to previous estimates, it still produces a cumulative shortfall of $95M over the five-year period during which the replacement South Pole Station is to be funded. It is the conclusion of the Panel that these residual funds are not to be found within the resources of the USAP without severely undermining the viability of the science program and degrading health and safety conditions.