Skip to main content
Email Print Share
NSF & Congress


Norman R. Augustine

U. S. Antarctic Program External Panel

Before the House Science Committee
On the U.S. and Antarctica in the 21st Century March 12, 1997

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to present the findings and recommendations of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel, which I have had the privilege of chairing since its establishment by the National Science Foundation last August. We have completed our work except for publishing the final report, which, when completed in April, will give background information and present in considerable detail our 22 findings and 12 recommendations. Each of these findings and recommendations has the unanimous support of the Panel.

The Panel consisted of 10 individuals and myself, selected by the NSF to represent the research community, the business engineering community, and the operations community. Over the years, the members of the Panel have made some 44 individual trips to Antarctica, visiting or working in all the major U.S. Antarctic facilities and observing non-U.S. activities as well. Together as a Panel we visited McMurdo and South Pole stations, summer camps, an icebreaker and support facilities at Christchurch, New Zealand. In addition, we held four meetings, all of them open to the public and all but one lasting two full days each. During the meetings, the Antarctic inspection trip, and in individual fact-finding sessions, we received approximately 70 formal briefings and conducted about 80 "one-on-one" meetings with persons involved in virtually every aspect of the Antarctic program. We received over 200 responses to our request for "public comments." The NSF cooperated extensively in developing and providing information in response to our requests.

The task NSF gave us last August was, put simply, to "examine a full range of infrastructure, management, and scientific options" in order to maintain a high quality research program, to implement the U.S. policy of providing an active and influential presence in Antarctica, and to do these things under realistic budget scenarios. We benefited greatly from the informative policy review that the National Science & Technology Council completed in April, 1996, concerning the U.S. Antarctic Program. That review, as you know, was prepared in response to a request made by the Congress in September, 1995. The review called attention to the high geopolitical, scientific, and environmental value of the Antarctic program and noted the resultant premium on detailed understanding of options for cost reductions. It was this situation that led the NSTC to recommend that an external panel be convened by the NSF to explore options for sustaining the high level of the U. S. Antarctic Program under realistic funding levels.

One of the Panel's early actions was to consider the basic question asked by the Congress and responded to by the NSTC: What should be the role of the United States in Antarctica?

We strongly agree with the NSTC position that, to quote from its review, "...from a policy perspective the NSTC finds that maintaining an active and influential presence in Antarctica, including year-round operation of South Pole Station, is essential to U. S. interests..." In fact, the Panel views the substantial U.S. presence in Antarctica as a critical, perhaps even the most critical, element in assuring the continued political stability of that region. In addition, working in cooperation with other nations, the U.S. plays an important role in assuring the preservation of a fragile and nearly pristine ecological system which serves as an important indicator of future environmental trends throughout the planet.

The other major reason to continue the National presence in Antarctica is that, because of the unique physical conditions which prevail in Antarctica, the region serves as a one-of-a-kind scientific laboratory for the investigation of phenomena which range from the microscopic to the Earth-shaping. Again, to quote from the NSTC, "...The NSTC finds the USAP research program to be of very high quality and of great interest to a broad scientific community." Our Panel concurs in this finding. Some examples of the research that our Panel considers to be especially noteworthy are as follows:

  • Scientists have discovered the character and causes of the Antarctic ozone hole, which has served as an early warning of the threat to the planet's ozone shield, and are now monitoring its impact on life and its predicted recovery.
  • Global warming is a complex and controversial topic, but there is no controversy about the benefits to be gained through understanding and detecting whether or not we are experiencing a systematic and unprecedented warming. The polar regions are integral to this process and perhaps leading indicators of it.
  • Geophysical research conducted in recent years has shown that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet disappeared and re-established itself after it had initially formed. Understanding this phenomenon will help us determine the potential for ice sheet collapse and associated sea-level rise. Sea level rise at the rate predicted by some glaciologists would drastically impact the coasts of the world.
  • The South Pole is the site of the cleanest air that can be found in the world today. Measurements of atmospheric gases and aerosols there are critical to understand the chemistry of the clean atmosphere and to unambiguously detect global human influences.
  • Natural features at the South Pole -- both the cold and dry atmosphere overhead and the clear ice sheet beneath -- are enabling important experiments in astronomy and astrophysics.
  • Parts of Antarctica are uniquely suited to the recovery of meteorites, some of whose origin can be traced to the Moon and to Mars. Recent discoveries, yet to be fully confirmed, have suggested the possibility that primitive forms of life once existed on Mars.
  • The Antarctic Ocean is being investigated as a major sink for excess carbon dioxide released by human activities, a large factor in global climate studies.

Data collected to understand many of these and related phenomena show fluctuations caused by extraneous influences over various time scales. 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.

I will turn now from discussing the rationale for the Nation's presence in Antarctica to the topic that occupied most of the time of the External Panel, which was, "How shall we as a Nation implement this presence effectively and efficiently?"

We quickly saw that the present time is one of extraordinary change in the management of the U.S. Antarctic Program. One reason for the high level of oversight attention being given to America's program in Antarctica, both by our Panel and by the previous groups, has of course been the NSF's identification of the need to redevelop America's research facility at the South Pole. The Panel concluded that this redevelopment is in fact necessary in order to achieve basic standards of safety, health and environmental protection and so that the nation can respond to the challenges of modern-day science. Also, a year-round presence, as noted in the NSTC review, "...protects the U. S. position on sovereignty in Antarctica and accords us a decisive role in the [Antarctic] Treaty's activities-based decision system, both of which are essential to maintaining the political and legal balance that makes the Treaty work." Such a year-round presence places significant demands for reliable, self-contained facilities.

Our Panel therefore agrees with the NSF and the NSTC that South Pole Station will need to be rebuilt or replaced. However, as we became increasingly familiar with the Antarctic program during our work, we recognized that four additional factors make the time between now and the turn of the century 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 in fact of re-inventing ways of conducting Antarctic activities.

The four additional factors are as follows:

  • First, the U.S. Navy is withdrawing from Antarctica, ending its historic, key role there on behalf of the Department of Defense. This role included exploration in the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century and, since the 1950s, operational and logistics support of research sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
  • Second, as the Navy completes its withdrawal by 1999, the Department of Defense is shifting heavy-lift (LC-130) air transport functions to the New York Air National Guard. This change will put all the Nation's ski-equipped C-130 operations, for both the Arctic and the Antarctic, under one military unit.
  • Third, as the Navy withdraws, NSF is continuing to transfer many of the Navy's traditional support functions to civilian contractors. Impressive efficiencies and cost-reduction actions have been taken in recent years and the Panel has identified further opportunities for additional savings, which I will address in a moment.
  • Fourth and finally, all three of America's year-round stations in Antarctica -- and particularly the one at the South Pole -- are aging, 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 some of the facilities in Antarctica, particularly the one at the South Pole. The quality of these facilities is not in keeping with the standard reasonably expected of a nation of America's stature. The Panel believes that steps need to be taken without delay to remedy these conditions.

As I stated earlier, the Panel had twenty-two principal findings and twelve principal recommendations. In the interest of saving time this morning, I will briefly discuss just the Panel's recommendations.

First. America's presence in Antarctica. Forty-three nations are waging peace in Antarctica, under the Antarctic Treaty. This huge region contains six percent of the world's ocean, nine percent of its land, and 70 percent of its fresh water (in the form of ice). High among the reasons that we have international harmony in the Antarctic is the role played by the United States which over many years has helped to create the existing system of treaties and international agreements governing human conduct in the region. The presence of the United States in Antarctica is a key element of the stability in the region. Thus, our first recommendation is that the United States, as a matter of national policy, should maintain a continued year-round presence in Antarctica, including at the South Pole.

Second. Safety and Health. Critical safety and health shortcomings exist at U.S. facilities in Antarctica, particularly at South Pole Station. The most urgent of these are being rectified through Congressional and NSF support provided in FY97. But additional concerns demand attention. We recommend prompt steps to eliminate safety and health shortfalls at all U.S. facilities in Antarctica. I will speak further about the facilities at South Pole in another recommendation.

Third. Program Scope. The U.S. Antarctic Program operates three major field sites (Palmer, Amundsen-Scott and McMurdo), two research ships (Polar Duke and Nathaniel B. Palmer) and numerous remote data collection sites which are either uninhabited or inhabited only on a temporary basis.

The three stations play very different roles in the fabric of the U.S. Antarctic Program. Palmer provides a base for ocean sciences in a unique climatic zone that allows year-round access, is the least costly of the three stations to operate, and is of geopolitical significance because it is in a region of overlapping territorial claims. McMurdo offers access for ships carrying supplies and is the logistics hub for inland operations, as well as offering excellent research facilities itself. McMurdo is of course critical in providing logistics for South Pole Station. South Pole Station is strategically located from a geopolitical standpoint and provides a unique base for certain types of science. It has a long and continuous observational record that is critical in such areas as monitoring stratospheric ozone, and is the base for astronomy projects providing new insights into the universe. South Pole Station is in some respects the "crown jewel" of America's Antarctic presence -- but cannot operate without logistics support from McMurdo. Our third recommendation is, therefore, that the United States should continue to maintain permanent facilities at Palmer, McMurdo, and the South Pole.

Fourth. International Cooperation. International cooperation and shared support of science offer benefits to United States objectives in Antarctica and can foster and advance Antarctic research. Much international cooperation is under way in Antarctica with great success. The notion of reducing cost through international research projects is realistic in some instances, particularly for larger projects. But, in most cases, cost savings are offset by the increased effort of coordination and the reduced efficiency typical of many international projects.

One aspect of potential cooperation, in the judgment of the Panel, does not meet the criteria for U. S. endorsement. Specifically, to internationalize with foreign capital investment in U.S. core facilities raises "ownership" issues that work to the detriment of U.S. interests and, in the opinion of the Panel, worldwide interests. It is not illogical that a foreign nation that shares the basic costs of a facility should seek a voice in the operation of that facility -- and ultimately a share in the "title" to that facility.

Our recommendation is therefore that international cooperation in scientific research and logistics support should be encouraged, but core facilities and infrastructure at permanent U.S. sites in Antarctica should be provided by and maintained by the United States.

Fifth. South Pole Facilities. The Panel carefully examined four options for the construction funding period FY98 through FY02 and for the life cycle costs FY98 through FY25.

Rehabilitating the existing station is the lowest cost option, but would be imprudent because of such factors as the lack of fire suppression systems, the substandard space conditions in the under-snow utility tunnels, the need for improved safety exits, and the disruption to science and operations as various systems fail due to aging.

Upgrading safety in the existing station was considered, but the cost-benefit tradeoff for this option is unattractive.

The Enhanced station is the term the Panel used for the new design that has been proposed by the NSF. An Enhanced station would provide additional capability and the opportunity for development of energy and environmental technologies. However, not all of these additional capabilities are mandatory, making this option difficult to support in a fiscally constrained budget environment.

We asked the NSF to evaluate its Enhanced station design and see if a reduction in cost would be achievable through certain changes in requirements. This redesign has produced what the Panel terms the Optimized (new) station.

It is our recommendation that the existing South Pole Station should be replaced with the Optimized station. Construction can be completed by the year 2005 if the necessary budgetary steps are taken immediately for funding over the five-year period FY98-FY02.

Sixth. Funding. Budget austerity and other changing conditions over the last two decades have necessitated the transition of management of the U.S. Antarctic interest to a single agency, the NSF. A consequence of this change has been to place in a relatively small, research-oriented agency, normally dedicated to the support of science in an academic environment, the responsibility for a major national undertaking in one of the world's most remote and demanding environments. The Panel finds it remarkable that the NSF has been able to assume this responsibility with little or no disruption to ongoing activities -- and indeed with the realization of considerable efficiencies that are described in our report.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Antarctic Program should be viewed as a national program, much like the space program, not merely as another NSF science project, and should therefore be scoped, funded, and judged as such. In general, the government budgetary policy does not provide for a "depreciation" account to cover the cost of replacing capital assets as they wear out. The NSF Antarctic budget is simply not adequate to fund in entirety the periodic major capital expenditures demanded by an activity with the scale of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The consequence of seeking to function as if this were not the case is to suffer a continually eroding capital has indeed been the realization at present.

The Panel devoted considerable attention to the issue of how much funding for construction of South Pole Station should be derived from temporary cuts in Antarctic research. There is strong consensus that quality of science should be maintained and, further, that the Panel should not seek to micromanage the detailed content of the science effort in Antarctica. On the other hand, the extremely challenging federal budget condition demands at least some offset from the research program to help invest in new facilities. It is the Panel's position that the most equitable and effective way to control the cost of science on the continent is to limit the number of scientists conducting research in Antarctica.

Given the imperative to replace the existing facility at the South Pole and the lack of any current budget plan for doing so, the Panel concludes that four funding sources must be drawn upon. In the following, the dollars cited will be cumulative dollars over the period FY98-FY02.

  1. NSF should moderately cut back Antarctic field research and its operational support while the new Optimized facility is being built. We have suggested that a $20M reallocation for infrastructure is achievable during the years in which the new station is constructed.
  2. The capability of the replacement South Pole facility should be reduced to the level of the Optimized Station described a few moments ago. This action cuts the cost of a new station by approximately $30M. The replacement station cost thus becomes $120M, to be spread over the five funding years FY98-FY02, compared to the most recent NSF proposal of $150M and to earlier station concepts that ranged up to $200M.
  3. The process of deriving cost reductions associated with the transition of functions from the Navy to the NSF and its contractors should continue to be energetically pursued. This action can be expected to reduce costs by $30M over the period FY98-FY02.
  4. The above steps are what we believe to be prudent steps to reduce the cost of a new facility at South Pole Station and to reduce or reallocate other costs in the Antarctic program. Unfortunately, there remains a funding shortfall which in the Panel's judgment can only be reasonably funded by the provision of an additional $95M over the five years FY98 through FY02 in the NSF budget. This Panel believes that this will permit the phased replacement of the existing South Pole Station without unduly compromising the nation's program of research or jeopardizing its presence in Antarctica.

Seventh. Planning and Budgeting. Our report notes that the lack of a continuing long-range Antarctic integrated capital plan (and supporting budget) makes it virtually impossible to maintain an efficient and modern set of facilities. We recommend that the NSF prepare, and annually update, a long-range plan that coordinates science, support and facility needs to carry out the U.S. Antarctic Program. Implementation funds should be identified to support the long range plan.

Eighth. Management. U.S. operations in Antarctica present a management challenge because of their diversity and the 10,000-mile "pipeline" involved in supporting the field operation from the United States. Two management tenets which apply in such situations are to have a single operating manager (for support activities) and to establish an organization under this manager which minimizes the number of interfaces. These principles should be embraced in the evolving management structure.

Ninth. Program Integration. Many, but not all, support functions for Antarctic research can be related to particular research projects. Evaluation of such costs should be made a more explicit part of the review of potential research projects. We believe that more explicit allocation of operational costs could help motivate researchers and support staff to achieve efficiencies on their own.

Tenth. Transition. As noted, the Panel believes all support functions should be under the management of a single prime support contractor. This and other transitions of management responsibilities offer attractive opportunities to "reinvent" U.S. operations and to consolidate like-functions and eliminate unneeded functions. We recommend that the NSF and its contractor, since 1990, Antarctic Support Associates, review those functions no longer to be performed by the Department of Defense to ensure they are transferred to the recipient organization in the most efficient possible manner ...or, where possible, eliminated altogether.

Eleventh. Telecommunications. Although the telecommunications capability in Antarctica has been substantially improved in recent years, it remains substandard. On the other hand, budget pressures may demand that the next major telecommunications upgrade be deferred pending completion of a new South Pole Station -- at which time relevant new technologies (perhaps based on the use of large constellations of low-orbiting satellites) may become available anyway. The Panel recommends that meanwhile the NSF seek advance arrangements with governmental and commercial geostationary satellite operators to make geostationary satellites systematically available as they reach the end of their economic commercial life.

Twelfth and last. Tourism. Tourism in Antarctica is increasing and is an inevitable facet of an affluent, mobile world. There is no logic to argue that Antarctica should be reserved solely for research scientists; hence, visits by the public should in general be welcomed. On the other hand, a greater presence of humans will require visit management, just as our nation's parks require a management structure that responds to the volume and the nature of usage. Now is the time to work with other nations and agencies to plan for increasing numbers of visitors in a manner which permits the magnificence of Antarctica to be widely enjoyed but is not harmful to the environment or disruptive to the research being done there. Additional issues arise that are best resolved prior to their occurrence, such as who is to fund search and rescue operations and what nations shall have directive air traffic management authority over non-sovereign territory.

We recommend that the U. S. Government, presumably the Department of State, convene U. S. Government organizations having interests in Antarctica, develop a policy regarding the increased tourism expected in Antarctica in the years ahead, and work with other interested governments to address this issue in a proactive and cooperative manner.

This last point concludes my formal remarks. I want to close by noting again that our final report, now in preparation, has the support of all eleven of us who served on the External Panel. Since August, when we began our task, we have come to know many of the 3,500 men and women who work in the U.S. Antarctic Program each year, and to have developed a keen appreciation for some of the challenges they face. The changes that we are recommending are intended to help them, in the long run, do their work better and to continue U.S. leadership in Antarctic issues of importance to the Nation and the world.

I will be happy to respond to questions or comments.

See also: Hearing Summary.