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NSF & Congress


Dr. Neal Sullivan
Director, Office of Polar Programs
National Science Foundation

Before the House Science Committee
July 23, 1996

Mr. Chairman, I am Neal Sullivan, Director of the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the U.S. Antarctic Program.

NSF supports world-class research at both poles. I will, however, confine my testimony today to NSF's unique role in the Antarctic. Since 1976, NSF has been the agency responsible for single point management of the United States Antarctic Program. In 1982, the President reaffirmed in Presidential Memorandum 6646 the national policy underlying the USAP and directed that the Program be maintained at a level providing an active and influential presence in Antarctica. This policy was amended with Presidential Decision Directive 26 which articulated the importance of environmental stewardship at both poles.

Since the first statement of U.S. policy in Antarctica in 1970, NSF has been the federal agency responsible for coordinating and supporting all U.S. government sponsored activities, including adherence to the Antarctic Treaty which guarantees freedom for scientific research and prohibits military and nuclear activities there. A reaffirmation of the important scientific, foreign policy, and national security interests served by the United States Antarctic Program is contained in the study by the National Science and Technology Council.

As you know, the conduct of science is the principal human activity in Antarctica. The continent and the seas around it are a natural laboratory in which to investigate fundamental questions in astronomy and astrophysics, glaciology, geology, geophysics, oceanography, the atmospheric sciences, ecology, biology, and biomedical science. Insights from these disciplines provide new knowledge, with global implications. The harsh, desolate, and remote land areas provide unparalleled research analogs for other planets.


Antarctica and its surrounding oceans -- 10% of Earth's land mass and 6% of its oceans -- provide major opportunities for research to expand fundamental knowledge of the region and to help us understand global issues such as continental drift, climate change, ocean circulation, and pollution. Antarctica holds a key to understanding continental drift and plate tectonics because it was a major component of several supercontinents. Changes in the region's oceans are a pivotal influence on the world deep ocean circulation and biotic productivity. Isolation from industrial centers has made the region ideal for measuring natural variability of the atmosphere and anthropogenic impacts on it. The continental ice sheet volume and the seasonal variation in sea ice extend beyond the continent to influence atmospheric and oceanic circulation around Antarctica. Human-caused increases of greenhouse gases (e.g., CO2 , chlorofluorocarbons, and methane) may have profound effects in the region, where models predict greater change than in temperate latitudes.

Recent research on the significant reduction of stratospheric ozone over Antarctica each spring has aroused international attention. Data collected in Antarctica show that atmospheric chemistry processes, stimulated especially by the buildup of artificial chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), is destroying the ozone. One consequence of a decrease in ozone is an increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth, which if sustained could cause skin cancer, cataracts, and immune system damage to higher animals, including humans.

Research on the Antarctic ozone hole by many researchers supported by the USAP and other agencies led to award of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and F. Sherwood Rowland, for their pioneering work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone. Collaborative, interagency research has explained the fluorocarbon cause of the ozone hole, and future work will monitor the magnitude of the phenomenon.


Antarctica is the coldest, driest, highest, windiest and most isolated continent on Earth, and as a result Antarctica is an expensive and difficult place to do research. However, these unique conditions also provide the opportunity to do research that can be only or best accomplished in the Antarctic.

The South Pole's distance from centers of human population and industry make it an ideal location to monitor the background composition of the planetary atmosphere. For example, the station has an unbroken 37-year data set of atmospheric CO2.

Antarctica is the source of most of the world's meteorites, which offer clues to the origin of the solar system. While most meteorites originate in the asteroid belt, a few of the Antarctic samples found by the USAP have been confirmed as being from Mars. Some of these meteorites reflect the presence of water on Mars, adding to speculation about the existence of life there.

The single annual day-night cycle at the geographic South Pole allows continuous observations of the skies for long uninterrupted periods. The best early developments and results in solar seismology came from USAP-supported work at the South Pole and used the continuous availability of the sun to get high-quality data that constrained solar models fundamental to stellar evolution.

Because of the low temperatures and the near absence of water vapor in the atmosphere above the polar plateau, the infrared skies are consistently clearer and darker than anywhere else on Earth, making the geographic South Pole the world's best existing observatory site for infrared and submillimeter astronomy. Observations at very low frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum have the potential for answering major questions about the formation of the universe, including the processes by which stars form from interstellar gas, the formation of planets, the nature of primeval galaxies, and the distribution of matter and energy in the early universe.


The polar plateau is an extensive, deep and dark, but remarkably transparent ice sheet that appears to be ideal to support the installation of a muon and neutrino detector array for mapping extraterrestrial neutrino sources. This recently recognized feature of the ice sheet will open new opportunities in neutrino astrophysics, offering insight into the high energy physics of the most explosive phenomena in the Universe.

Because Antarctica contains almost 10% of Earth's continental crust, it has substantial geologic records of plate tectonic processes, evolution and dispersal of life, and evidence of past environmental conditions at Earth's surface. Studying the records provided by this crust is necessary for a balanced picture of Earth's geologic development. Using aerogeophysics to sense the crust underneath the west Antarctic has led to the discovery of volcanoes, which may themselves be melting the ice and lubricating its base to quicken its flow into the ocean.

West Antarctica contains rifted, and therefore thinned, continental crust beneath the world's last marine-based ice sheet. Consequently, this region is the most important region in the world for understanding the possibilities of future sea level change. The discovery of ice streams within the west Antarctic Ice Sheet has led to an understanding of glacial flow and the potential for ice sheet collapse.

Antarctica has been in a near polar position for the last 100 million years, so the South Polar region contains records of climate and environmental change over a long period. The inference of a mild climate, indicated by beech tree fossils close to the South Pole as recently as two million years ago, cannot be reconciled with currently understood polar processes.


Let me also provide some background on NSF's recent environmental activities in the Antarctic. In 1990, Congress asked NSF to undertake a 5-year program to improve waste management in the Antarctic. We completed that program last year and in so doing, we have not only achieved compliance with the Antarctic protocol, we have established exemplary waste management procedures.

For example, we have a recycling rate above 70 percent, more than triple the national average. Every decision by NSF to acquire an item and ship it to Antarctica begins with an analysis of the implications for waste disposal. Not only has this made environmental protection more central to our operations, it has made our logistics more efficient than before.


I would like to also mention changes in the operational components of the Program. Present management objectives have focused on streamlining the Program's operational and logistics costs to realize efficiencies and enable more effective support of science. The management strategy is to privatize the functions performed by the DoD to the extent possible, whenever it leads to increased efficiency or economy without compromising health or safety. These privatization efforts will include activities such as station maintenance, food services, and vehicle operations and repair. This objective received added impetus with the Navy's plan, stated in 1993, to withdraw from the U.S. Antarctic Program.

In addition to the savings anticipated by transferring tasks from the military to the private sector, specific transfers of responsibility within the military can also provide appreciable cost savings. The snow ski-equipped C-130 (LC-130) is the only aircraft of its type in the world. There are only two operators of the LC-130, a Navy squadron based in Pt. Mugu, CA (VXE-6), and an Air National Guard wing based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady, NY (109th AW). VXE-6 operates and maintains NSF's fleet of LC-130s. Single Point Management by the Guard will consolidate the operation and maintenance of these two squadrons under a single DoD manager to meet Arctic and Antarctic logistics and science support requirements.

Single point management of these airplanes will reduce costs by eliminating duplicate organizations at all levels, reducing personnel and training costs, standardizing equipment and maintenance and operating procedures, and streamlining the planning and scheduling of polar airlift. The USAP will reimburse the Air Force only for its support to the Antarctic program.


International collaboration is a hallmark of Antarctic research. There is free and open exchange of information, and stations and facilities are generally available for international programs ranging in scale from collaborations between individual scientists, to the sharing of national resources to support larger scale programs. These interactions are encouraged through a variety of international forum ranging from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative meetings, the Council of Manager of National Antarctic Program and their Standing Committee on Antarctic Logistics and Operations. These opportunities permit National program objectives to be discussed and compared. Where objectives in research or logistics overlap, opportunities for cooperation are discussed.

There are several prominent examples of U.S. cooperation with international partners. Some examples include the exchange of logistics resources between the U.S. and New Zealand, and the U.S. and Italian national programs. The scientific and logistic collaboration among the U.S., French, and Russian programs to obtain the deepest ice core from Vostok station, and similar collaboration among the U.S., New Zealand, Italian, U.K., Germany and Australia programs to obtain 4 ocean sediments cores in the vicinity of Cape Roberts, Antarctica, demonstrate the potential for continued international cooperation.


One area of the USAP which has received considerable attention is the U.S. station at the South Pole. The majority of the existing facilities at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station were constructed in the early 1970s and were first occupied in 1974. The station was designed to support a science program significantly smaller and less sophisticated than that supported today. The station uses 30-year-old construction (pre-dating subsequently recognized environmental concerns), and supports 140 people during the summer months, the majority housed in temporary facilities. Some of the permanent facilities have been upgraded since the 1970s, but most of the structures lack the engineered safety features now standard in the United States.

The general approach taken to upgrade facilities to address safety and health concerns at the U.S. Antarctic stations is to use U.S. standards, adapted to the sometimes unique program conditions. The operational philosophy is one of "managed risk"; -- minimizing exposure to hazards. Protection of life and health is the highest priority. Protection of property is the second priority. Risks are minimized to the extent that life, health, and property are protected. If risks reached a point that life of personnel were endangered, facilities would be closed.

As the infrastructure ages, it becomes increasingly costly to maintain activities. With level budgets, the cost of risk management increases at the expense of other program costs, including direct science support. The station at the South Pole currently has in place a continuous monitoring system to compensate for inadequate ventilation in the garage and shops. When air quality deteriorates to unsafe levels, administrative controls reduce personnel exposure. The side effect is that work in the garage and shops stops until air quality is safe. A temporary exhaust system will be installed as an additional interim measure next season. The current power plant has a backup system which will support life should the main generators fail. There are two external fuel tanks (outside the station) which would provide additional fuel to the station in an emergency.

To address the most significant safety and environmental concerns at the South Pole, several specific improvements, totaling $25 million, were included in the FY97 budget request as part of NSF's Major Research Equipment (MRE) request. The three areas are the heavy equipment maintenance facility, the power plant, and fuel storage. The current garage and shop areas have code and safety deficiencies that pose health and safety risks for personnel. These deficiencies are being addressed through administrative and management procedures that make operations safe. These procedures, however, have a cost to implement and an impact on operational efficiency. Administrative controls have been implemented to reduce safety risks to scientists and operational personnel. The garage/shop upgrade would address:

  1. the absence of exhaust ventilation systems capable of maintaining hazardous airborne contaminants to within acceptable levels,
  2. lack of fire suppression systems in an area where presence of fuels, lubricants and other flammable materials is required, and where ignition sources are present,
  3. minimal facilities and equipment for working on the large heavy industrial vehicles used at South Pole Station, and
  4. severely limited space requiring the scheduling of projects to avoid work conflicts between the trades.

The Power Plant is the backbone of the Station, providing basic life support in the form of electricity and heat. It represents a potential "single point failure" for continuation of the science program. The current power plant is operating at capacity, resulting in brown-outs. It has electrical and operational deficiencies that restrict operations. The existing three 350kw generators are relatively fuel inefficient, and the 20-25 year old power plant structure is overcrowded. Emergency power is for minimal life support systems only. The power upgrade would include new housing for the equipment, new higher capacity generators, new switch gear, transformers, power conditions, fire suppression equipment, water treatment and water storage for the station. Storage for up to 300,000 gallons of fuel is required at the South Pole. Fuel is currently stored in fuel bladders, without secondary containment, that have risk of leakage or major spills. Steel storage tanks are needed to meet minimum environmental standards. Their capacity will also help to meet fuel demands for increased electrical requirements. The fuel storage upgrade includes 10,000-gallon steel tanks with secondary containment for all tanks and fuel piping and pumping system.

As you are aware, one of the recommendations of the NSTC Report was the establishment of an external review panel to further consider certain aspects of the U.S. Antarctic Program. I am happy to report that we have begun that task. We now have a chairman, Dr. Norman Augustine of Lockheed-Martin, and are in the process of recruiting panel members. The chairman has already expressed his plans to have a final report completed by early in 1997.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for this opportunity to provide information on the U.S. Antarctic Program. Let me conclude by expressing my appreciation to members of this committee for the interest shown in our Program. NSF's support of research in the Antarctic has been shaped by history, geography, diverse federal agency roles, logistics consideration, and scientific opportunities. In the final analysis, however, our programs are driven by ideas from the research community, and we at NSF will continue our efforts to address the important scientific questions that can be studied in and around the unique Antarctic continent.

See also: Hearing Summary.