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U.S. Polar Programs $303,810,000

The FY 2003 Budget Request for U.S. Polar Programs is $303.81 million, an increase of $6.0 million, or 2.0 percent, over the FY 2002 Current Plan of $297.81 million.

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FY 2001

FY 2002


FY 2003





U.S. Polar Research Programs






U.S. Antarctic Logistical Support Activities






Total, Polar Programs






Totals may not add due to rounding.

The U.S. Polar Programs Activity supports most of the polar research funded by the National Science Foundation. The Arctic and Antarctic are premier natural laboratories whose extreme environments and geographically unique processes enable research not feasible elsewhere. For example, polar ice forms an integral part of the AMANDA neutrino observatory and the cold, dry environment and high altitude at the South Pole render certain astrophysical telescopes uniquely effective. These instruments probe the distant reaches of the universe, while environmental observatories detect and monitor effects of climate change on extreme terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Arctic researchers are collecting basalts, peridotites, and related rocks along 600 km of the Arctic Ocean's Gakkel Ridge, which has been a prime target for sampling by scientists for many years, but its inaccessibility due to the perennial Arctic ice cover has discouraged a systematic study. This research is made possible through use of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. NSF worked extensively with the USCG, the science team and the polar oceanographic community to have the Healy modified while under construction so that it could more effectively support science. This has resulted in a vessel capable of opening up new research possibilities in the Arctic. Data will be combined to generate quantitative models of oceanic crust formation under ultra-slow spreading conditions. Polar researchers are also monitoring and analyzing recent changes in the Arctic ice cover and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to better understand the potential impact of these changes on global climate. Other projects supported by Polar Programs analyze the chemistry of ice cores as a record of global climate history; utilize astrophysical observations made in cold dry polar conditions to determine the evolution and structure of the universe; examine the effects on marine life of increased ultraviolet light resulting from ozone depletion; and elucidate adaptation mechanisms of organisms and ecosystems to harsh living conditions.

Polar regions also offer unusual opportunities for environmental research, both because polar ecosystems are so sensitive to small changes in climate and because polar regions provide information about past environmental changes and serve as bellwethers for potential future change.

Highlights of Polar Programs' supported activities include the following:

  • An NSF-supported group working at the South Pole reported the most detailed observations ever made from the glow of the hot gases of the early universe. This work was carried out by the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica using the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI). The results constitute a measurement of how much mass and energy there is in the universe and show that 95 percent of the mass and energy must reside in as yet undiscovered forms and objects.

  • Researchers have found evidence that the Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean may be hydrothermally active and characterized by undersea vents known as "black smokers." The number of vents on the Gakkel Ridge and their very existence overturns conventional wisdom in this area. Elsewhere such vents have been shown to support previously unknown species of marine life. Cameras lowered from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy revealed intact sulfide chimneys, and thermistors recorded warm water temperatures. Several dredges recovered fresh sulfides that were part of "black smoker" chimneys.

  • Research on airborne contaminants contributes significantly to understanding of how environmental issues affect Inupiat people. Researchers provided local and state (Alaska) officials, U.S. Department of Interior officials, and Congressional staff a special briefing on Arctic contaminants and their relevance to Arctic communities. The researchers worked directly with village elders and other members of the community in planning, experimental design, and fieldwork, thus ensuring that the project would contribute significantly to their scientific and societal needs.

  • The third "Biology Training Course in Antarctica" offered an international graduate-level training course entitled "Integrative Biology and Adaptation of Antarctic Marine Organisms." Taught in Antarctica for one month during the austral summer, the course included 22 people from six countries (18 graduate students and 4 postdoctoral researchers). The goals for the course were to introduce students to the diversity of organisms in Antarctica, to study the unique aspects of biology that permit life in such an extreme environment, and to give students firsthand experience in dealing with the unique problems inherent to Antarctic field sampling.

  • A chemical method for fingerprinting biological activity in meteorites was developed using the isotopic composition of iron (Fe), triggering new research in a field crossing geochemistry and biology and attracting several other research groups. The results were key to advancing knowledge about the natural variability of Fe isotopes.

  • The first autonomous underwater vehicle with the endurance to work under ice in the Arctic was developed. This is part of a continuing effort to obtain better all-season ocean data. Strategically related efforts continued to develop robotic samplers for the atmosphere (aerosondes) and to develop an autonomous, under-ice ocean bottom seismometer.

NSF is one of twelve federal agencies supporting Arctic research and logistics. The Foundation provides interagency leadership for research planning as directed by the Arctic Research Policy Act of 1984. NSF also supports university research to increase our knowledge of the region, to improve understanding of Arctic phenomena, and to enhance stewardship of natural resources. Funding in the Arctic includes research and logistics support for work conducted in that remote region.

NSF is charged with managing all U.S. activities in the Antarctic as a single, integrated program. Funding for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) includes research and the science support directly linked specifically to research projects, as well as support for the broader operations and logistics infrastructure that makes it possible to conduct science on the remote and uninhabited continent.

Funding of $1.08 million for the Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency, is also included within funding for Polar Programs.

In FY 2003, Polar Programs will participate in four of six Foundation-wide priority areas: Biocomplexity in the Environment, Information Technology Research, Learning for the 21st Century Workforce, and Mathematical Sciences.

Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE): Funding in FY 2003 totals $1.41 million for biocomplexity research, which is unchanged from FY 2002. NSF will commit funding to: (1) Arctic/Subarctic Ocean Fluxes, a component of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) - a broad, interdisciplinary, multi-scale program with a core aim of understanding the complex suite of recent and ongoing intertwined changes; and (2) Study of sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica - conducting preliminary research setting the stage for exploring the content and nature of these lakes, which have been isolated from the biosphere for millions of years by the Antarctic ice sheet.

Information Technology Research (ITR): Funding for the Information Technology Research priority area in FY 2003 totals $1.33 million, an increase of $110,000 over FY 2002. Priorities continue to be development of remote operation capabilities and development of accessible information systems for polar data.

Learning for the 21st Century Workforce: Funding for this priority area in FY 2003 totals $1.12 million, an increase of $20,000 over FY 2002. Polar Programs support enhances the partnership between rural college campuses in Alaska and U.S. research institutes through interactive distance courses, laboratories, and workshops. Support is also provided for the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI), and the Graduate Teaching Fellowships in K-12 Education (GK-12) program.

Mathematical Sciences: Funding in FY 2003 totals $180,000 for modeling activities in polar research. No funding was committed in FY 2002 in support of this priority area.


U.S. Polar Programs' support for ongoing and new activities contributes to NSF efforts to achieve its strategic goals, as well as to the administration and management activities necessary to achieve those goals.

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Administration and Management 1




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Totals may not add due to rounding.
1 Includes only costs charged to the R&RA Appropriation.


Innovative efforts in Polar Programs contribute to developing a diverse, internationally competitive workforce of scientists, engineers and well-prepared citizens. These efforts have included use of new technologies such as interactive video; efforts to improve scientific literacy and education in Alaska; and contributions to developing a geosciences curriculum for undergraduates relating geoscience disciplines to polar and global phenomena. Continuing activities also include support for the Antarctic Artists and Writers program; Scouting in Antarctica; the Live from Antarctica project linking researchers to classrooms; curriculum development activities; and Teachers Experiencing the Antarctic and Arctic. Polar Programs also supports the following Foundation-wide programs: Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education; the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program; Model Institutions for Excellence; and ADVANCE. Funding for People in FY 2003 totals $4.77 million, an increase of $580,000, or 13.8 percent over FY 2002.


Support for discovery at and across the frontier of science and engineering and connections to its use in the service to society increases by $1.17 million in FY 2003, to a total of $73.77 million, an increase of 1.6 percent over FY 2002. Only fundamental research that can be uniquely or best undertaken in the polar regions is supported. Polar research addresses the solid earth, glacial and sea ice, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the oceans, the atmosphere and the universe. Research on the solid earth is integral to understanding plate tectonics, the evolution of life in Earth's distant and recent past, and the interactions of Earth's crust with the overlying ice sheets. Glacial and sea ice studies elucidate aspects of biologic productivity and global climate processes. Marine/terrestrial biota studies reveal how organisms adapted, at the genetic and macroscopic level, to the hostile environments. A major focus of ocean studies is the role of polar regions in generating nutrient-rich, cold currents that influence global ocean circulation. High latitude magnetic field and upper atmospheric studies provide unique views of near-earth space physics. The dry, cold atmosphere at the South Pole, its 9,300 foot elevation and six month continuous night permit astronomical studies not feasible elsewhere.


Research in the polar regions is also supported through provision of research support, special facilities, and logistics. Maintaining Arctic and Antarctic research facilities, stations, and camps necessitates a substantial portion of Polar Program funds for meeting ongoing, often long-term commitments. Funding for Tools in FY 2003 totals $222.77 million, a 1.9 percent increase over FY 2002. Research support includes costs typically awarded directly to grantees in other areas of NSF - technicians, field safety equipment, laboratory costs, transportation of scientists and their cargo, and instrumentation and equipment - but handled centrally by Polar Programs when it is more cost-effective to do so. In FY 2003, both the physical infrastructure and communications will continue to be upgraded, including improving security at USAP facilities in Christchurch, New Zealand. Both scientific and operational needs for enhanced computing and communications will be met by equipment upgrades. Remote sensing, data retrieval and handling, and automated observatories will be developed.

Polar Instrumentation

Modern exploration of Antarctica requires the use of the latest technology and instrumentation in order to make the most sophisticated measurements while at the same time minimizing the impact on the environment. Instrumentation requirements vary from microbiology instrumentation for labs at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and Toolik Field Station, Alaska; telescopes at the South Pole; remote sensors and robotics for exploring subglacial lakes and remote polar sites.


Support for Arctic research, through Polar Programs and other NSF Activities, includes support for Arctic field stations and large instrument facilities in Alaska, Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic, and other facilities and support required by researchers in the Arctic. Research is supported by:

  • Toolik Field Station, Alaska;
  • Facilities operated by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium;
  • Summit Field Station, Greenland;
  • A monitoring site in the central Bering Strait (Little Diomede Island); and
  • Access to airplanes, helicopters, research vessels, and icebreakers.


In the Antarctic, funds for science support, operations, and logistics make research possible by providing all the infrastructure, instrumentation, and logistics necessary for U.S. scientists from all disciplines, and from other government agencies, who travel to Antarctica for their research. This support includes forward staging facilities in New Zealand and South America, as well as the home ports or headquarters for the military and civilian contractor in the United States. Research is supported by:

  • McMurdo Station;
  • Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station;
  • Palmer Station;
  • Access to helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, research vessels; and
  • Related necessary services such as Polar Class U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers for opening the channel to McMurdo Station for the single annual fuel tanker and single annual supply ship that are provided on a cost reimbursable basis by the Military Sealift Command; and air traffic control, meteorology services, and electronic equipment maintenance support by the Department of Defense.

Funds are being spent for early planning, design and development of potential future facilities projects, listed below.

  • The McMurdo Long-Range Development Plan is currently envisioned as a plan that will provide improvements to facilities, identification of science and support needs and priorities, reduce energy costs and increase operational efficiencies, and provide a comprehensive land-use plan to reduce interference between science and support activities. The plan is currently being reviewed and will be revised to incorporate updated requirements. The construction phase of this project is currently estimated to cost approximately $60 million and may be proposed for MREFC and/or R&RA funding at a later date. To date, approximately $15 million has been provided primarily for planning and development, and an additional $3.10 million is planned for FY 2003.

  • The South Pole Submillimeter-wave Telescope (SPST). Located on the high Antarctic plateau where the atmospheric "seeing" at these wavelengths is better than anywhere else on earth, this instrument, with a sensitivity ten times that of any comparable facility, will open a new window on the structure of the early universe. The construction phase of this project is currently estimated to cost approximately $20 million, and may be proposed for MREFC and/or R&RA funding at a later date. To date, approximately $200,000 has been provided for this effort, and an additional $3.0 million has been requested in FY 2002.

Although any facility project undertaken will be categorized as a Tool, early planning and development investments may fall within Ideas and will be funded within the Research and Related Activities Account. Whether a project ever becomes a candidate for the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction Account is determined by a systematic planning and review process to determine its scientific merit, feasibility, and readiness.

Administration and Management

Administration and Management provides for administrative activities necessary to enable NSF to achieve its strategic goals. This includes $2.50 million for the cost of intergovernmental personnel action (IPA) appointments and contractors performing administrative functions.

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1 Statistics for award size and duration are for Research Grants only.


  Last Modified: Sep 17, 2004


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