NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
OFFICE OF POLAR PROGRAMS
4201 Wilson Blvd., Rm 755
Arlington, VA 22230

September 12, 1997


Subject: A Possible Antarctic Geological Repository



Dear Colleague,

Over the past two years the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) at the National Science Foundation (NSF), as the lead agency for all U.S. activities in Antarctica, has been studying the need for a repository for Antarctic rock and fossil specimens. Consistent with the recommendations of the recently completed U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel report, NSF has been considering the need for such a sample repository in order to help reduce the logistical and environmental impacts of remote field activities in the Antarctic, increase the cost effectiveness of past investments in field work by making continued use of existing samples for research, and preserve existing collections that have potential for future use but that are held by former Antarctic investigators.

Many different U.S. geological field parties have worked in Antarctica, dating back to the Byrd expeditions. The last three decades have seen high levels of field activity resulting in the collection of large numbers of rock and fossil specimens, mostly from remote regions with very limited access. In contrast to other national programs, which are more strongly centralized, the U.S. program has traditionally been based upon research projects by single investigators or small groups of investigators. Consequently, rock and fossil collections exist in a dispersed set of collections at many different institutions and are typically only available for study and analysis if there is personal contact with the original collector of the samples. Ultimately, studied fossil material has traditionally been transferred to museums for permanent archival, but this arrangement does not cover all types of material. Several retired scientists have expressed concern over the future of their collections and active scientists have expressed concern about the potential loss of these existing samples. Existing samples may have considerable value for pilot studies and projects utilizing new techniques, and their use is expected to derive both benefits to researchers and cost savings to the US Antarctic Program. It is believed that the present situation cannot persist without serious loss of potentially valuable Antarctic material. The Antarctic earth science community indicates no clear consensus on a detailed solution to this problem, but there is general agreement that a repository of some type would be of considerable value.

This letter is to solicit information from individuals and institutions, who might be interested in operating an Antarctic rock and fossil repository, about how such a facility might be organized and operated as a research resource for the Antarctic earth sciences research community. A proposed framework, including the rationale, purpose, and operating scope for a possible repository is attached to this letter. This document should be considered only a draft concept statement and should not limit thinking as to the scope, organization, or operation of such a repository.

Individuals and institutions interested in this endeavor are requested to send an explanation, no more that 5 pages, of their proposed approach to how such a repository might be developed, organized, and operated, along with a statement of cost considerations, to the Office of Polar Programs at the address above. This information will be used by OPP in making a decision about whether or not to proceed with development of a solicitation for proposals for developing a repository. There is no deadline for receipt of this information but it will be most useful if received by NSF before 1 February 1998.

Should you have any questions about this request for information, please contact Dr. Scott Borg of my office. He can be reached via e-mail at sborg@nsf.gov or via telephone at 703 306-1033.

Sincerely,

John B. Hunt
Acting Director

Attachments


CONSIDERATIONS FOR AN ANTARCTIC ROCK AND FOSSIL REPOSITORY

Rationale for Considering a Geological Repository

The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has no centralized Antarctic rock storage and curation facility, yet the disposition of existing and future geological collections is of great importance. Because the cost of collecting terrestrial geological material in Antarctica is so high, as it is with Antarctic ice and marine sediment cores, the lack of such an archive has a major adverse effect on USAP earth science and its individual investigators. Presently, U.S. investigators do not have ready access to previously collected material and are hindered from addressing special targets of opportunity or preparing pilot studies. Lack of access to collections, or loss of material, results in a significant impact to USAP because most remote localities can be revisited for recollection only by way of expensive and complicated logistics. Experience with the marine sediment core repositories (Antarctic as well as non-Antarctic) shows that repositories can be a cost effective way to ensure accessibility to samples for scientific investigations.

Implementation of a permanent domestic Antarctic geological repository would:

  • give a coherent structure to the organization, distribution, and use of geologically or historically valuable samples collected through the U.S. Antarctic program

  • give U.S. investigators the scientific benefit of routine access to previously collected material for pilot studies, special targets of opportunity, and funded research from a well-managed facility

  • reduce both the environmental impact and cost of deploying field parties to remote field locations for re-collection of samples

  • prevent the potential loss of scientifically and historically valuable specimens due to retirement, employment change, and death of Antarctic investigators, as many home institutions consolidate space and reduce costs

  • increase the pool of U.S. earth scientists interested in Antarctic research, by making material available for specialized studies without immediate need for investigators to develop a field program

  • provide specimens collected by U.S. scientists on approved loan to researchers in other countries in order to promote USAP goals in international cooperation and dissemination of information.

    Present Status

    Numerous sample collections are scattered at various institutions across the country, chiefly at academic and governmental sites. OPP estimates that a minimum of 82 funded investigators have collected significant geological material in Antarctica, dating to the 1960's. Most of these investigators conducted multiple field studies. The number of previously collected samples is estimated to total about 36,000, based on the number of field seasons per investigator and the types of studies being conducted. This estimate has some uncertainty and a better estimate might be achieved by more detailed canvassing of the community. Some unknown fraction of this total would be deemed to have probable future scientific value, but this is difficult to estimate given the uncertainty of future scientific discovery. OPP estimates that a repository may need to initially accommodate up to half of the estimated existing samples (on the order of 20,000 specimens), with additions from new projects at a rate of up to 1,000 samples/year on a continuing basis. In concept, such a facility could be expanded to include materials from remote regions in the Arctic (e.g., Alaska, Greenland, and arctic Canada).

    OPP has approached other federal agencies that already accept and retain geologic specimens to inquire about accepting Antarctic material. However, these agencies currently possess neither the mandate, resources, nor scientific staff to serve as a single Antarctic repository.

    To improve management of the distributed collections of existing Antarctic rock and fossil samples, OPP has provided funds to develop and implement a prototype on-line geologic database. This system can be queried for information on material and its storage status, as well as sort by sample attribute. The database includes information on geographic sample location, stratigraphic or rock unit assignment, age, lithology or fossil name, other characteristics or analytical data, and current location of the sample. It is presently in a beta version and is undergoing testing with trial entries from Antarctic researchers.

    General Scope of a Repository as a Research Resource

    The overall concept of operations for a repository has not been rigidly defined, although the existing marine sediment core facilities (such as the Antarctic Marine Geology Repository Facility) might serve as a general model for how a repository could be operated. Central to the concept of a lending repository is that it should be a resource for research. With the goal of becoming a first-class research support facility, a repository should provide practical access to the basic geologic data and sample material required for future research. A repository is not intended as a laboratory facility, although some modest equipment could be acquired for basic sample characterization. However, it may benefit from being located at an institution with substantial infrastructure for, and a commitment to, geological research.

    A repository structure will require definition and refinement by interaction between OPP, the research community, and the proposing institutions. If a repository is developed, coordination between individual investigators, museums, and the Antarctic repositories of other national programs will ensure both proper management and the free flow of material. Initially a significant effort should be given to acquisition of existing "at risk" collections and gathering data on these materials before researchers retire or expire. Once established, a repository will routinely interact with funded investigators to arrange submission of their collections, as well as with researchers planning proposals that require access to information or material for feasibility studies.

    At a minimum, an Antarctic Rock and Fossil Repository should provide the necessary resources to perform the following functions:

    (1) Receive, catalog, and permanently curate a variety of geological sample materials, including rock collected from on-land exposures, fossils, material dredged from research vessels, and, potentially, material acquired by sub-ice rock drilling. Material will include that from existing collections and future studies on a continuing basis. Repository staff should be active in managing material, including working with researchers to cull collections as they are submitted, and use expert advice in discarding material that is deemed of lesser scientific value.

    (2) Address requests for loan of sample material. Loans would be approved by a supervisory committee not connected with the host institution, as is done with other geological materials (fossils, meteorites, cores, etc.). Over the past 5 years, OPP has funded between 4-9 research projects per year explicitly for study of existing rock samples. This level of usage is expected to increase if a repository is established.

    (3) Maintain an electronic database that could be queried on-line or on-site to provide researchers with the means of identifying and locating material of specific research interest. If the Antarctic geologic database currently under development is adopted for general use within the U.S. community, a repository may serve as either the database site or as an independent facility that utilizes that database for sample management. Repository staff will need to work with researchers to update sample information on a timely basis.

    OPP does not wish to duplicate the roles filled by museums and other agency-funded facilities. A repository should not interrupt the flow of the most significant "type" or figured fossils away from established museums. Likewise, a repository will not include Antarctic meteorites, which are already curated at the Johnson Space Center under an interagency agreement between NSF, NASA, and the Smithsonian Institution.

    Following initial development, continued support from NSF, perhaps through a cooperative agreement, is possible but this would be subject to periodic competition in the merit review process. This model has worked well for management of the Antarctic Marine Geology Repository Facility and the National Ice Core Laboratory. Cost sharing from the institution and/or parallel support from private organizations would be encouraged.

    NSF is currently studying new policies regarding sample collection, information, and "ownership" that are independent of, but consistent with, implementation of a lending repository. NSF is considering requirements for investigators to contribute data to an Antarctic geologic database as part of their award obligation, and a requirement for investigators to provide representative sample suites to an Antarctic repository at a designated time following their initial award in order to make that material available to the wider community for study. These policy initiatives follow similar practices related to the collection, use and storage of marine sediment cores.

    Repository Models

    Any proposed repository concept should meet the scope and physical requirements identified above. Several possible models for an Antarctic repository structure are provided below. These are only given as examples, and proposals should not be restricted to these models. OPP encourages creative and cost-effective concepts.

    (1) Single-institution using existing physical space. A repository would be newly established using existing infrastructure. A facility could be housed in a wide variety of existing permanent structures, including sites such as warehouses, inactive military base facilities, aircraft facilities, etc. Modest renovations to existing infrastructure may be required in order to meet the curatorial needs of a repository.

    (2) Single-institution using existing facility. A repository would be established at an existing repository or similar facility (such as a museum or an institution already handling other types of geological material) through formal agreement to accommodate Antarctic specimens. Modest renovations to existing infrastructure or resources may be required.

    (3) Multiple-institution using existing facilities. This model takes advantage of existing facilities at 2 or more institutions, through formal agreement as above. Modest renovations to existing infrastructure may be required. Implementation of this model would require careful sample management and inter-repository linkage by a common database.

    (4) Single-institution with new construction. A repository would be constructed as a new facility, either by itself or in conjunction with other institutional development. This model will require significant initial cost for construction.

    General Information

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