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NSF & Congress


Karl Erb

Dr. Karl Erb
Director, Office of Polar Programs
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
June 9, 1999

I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this testimony about the U.S. Antarctic Program. My organization, the Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation, is responsible for single-point management of the U.S. Antarctic Program as well as for support of science at the other end of the world, in the Arctic. Research in these inhospitable regions has much in common, and it addresses scientific issues of global societal importance.

The availability of science-support infrastructure and logistics is critical to modern polar research. For both polar regions, NSF, in addition to performing its traditional role of funding high quality research and education, also funds and manages these specialized field-support functions.

Today, I will make reference to some of the vital research being supported in the U.S. Antarctic Program, with emphasis on operational issues that are of particular interest at this time.

Antarctica offers unique advantages for scientific research. For example, the extremely dry, cold, and stable atmosphere at the South Pole and on the high plateau makes that region the best anywhere for certain types of astronomy. In addition, the 2-mile-thick ice sheet at South Pole serves as the medium for a forefront detector of energetic neutrinos, particles that interact so weakly with the matter and energy in interstellar space that they arrive here as the lone carriers of information about distant events. The dry valleys near McMurdo are the venue for studies of fascinating systems of organisms that somehow manage to survive in that extreme environment, and scientists studying the southern ocean are discovering species of fish that have evolved specific genetic adaptations that enable them to live in freezing waters.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is the only marine-based ice sheet remaining from the last ice age, is a significant topic of study by glaciologists and geologists. Many believe the ice sheet to be intrinsically unstable; if it were to slide off the antarctic continent into the sea, sea levels worldwide would rise 15 to 20 feet. While the probability of this happening within the next hundred years is thought to be very small, our incomplete understanding of the way ice sheets move dictates that we investigate the stability of the ice sheet in a variety of ways.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd remarked decades ago that "to travel to Antarctica is to return to the last ice age." That is still true today; in fact, we now know that the statement is much richer in meaning than Byrd realized. Both in Antarctica and in the Arctic, NSF-supported scientists have extracted cores from the ice sheets that provide a historical record of temperature and atmospheric gases that goes back hundreds of thousands of years in time. These measurements tell us that the Earth's climate has gone through spectacular, rapid changes and they provide us with benchmark tests of our understanding of the forces that drive climate change. Just-published data-obtained in a 10-year collaboration by the United States, France, and Russia that yielded ice cores through a column 2 miles deep near the Russian Vostok station in Antarctica-reveal a 420,000-year history of climate change.

Indeed, while the research supported in polar regions by the NSF Office of Polar Programs advances fundamental knowledge in virtually all the major disciplines, much of it is also interdisciplinary, and much of it bears on issues of global importance. An example is the study of the ozone hole and the research on chemistry and atmospheric science processes that created it. This work led to global agreements to phase out the use of the CFC compounds responsible for stratospheric ozone destruction. Other examples include the effects of the seasonal melting and refreezing of sea ice on the global ocean conveyer belt and the reflectivity, or albedo, of the polar ice cover, both of which have significant impacts on Earth's climate.

The infrastructure required to support forefront research in all areas of science has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. This trend is particularly true of polar science, and it places new demands, in particular, on the supporting infrastructure of the U. S. Antarctic Program. In the remainder of this testimony I will summarize the status of our efforts to meet these demands.

While NSF is the designated single-point manager of the National presence in Antarctica, the U.S. Antarctic Program is the sum total of the contributions of critically important Federal partnerships. The Coast Guard, the New York Air National Guard and its 109th Airlift Wing, the Air Mobility Command, the Military Sealift Command, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, and, until this year, the Navy's Antarctic Development Squadron 6 have combined to make it possible for our Nation to support world-class research in Antarctica. The U.S. Antarctic Program is a model of interagency cooperation and coordination, and still other agencies maintain substantial research activities in Antarctica in support of missions of mutual interest. Thus, the Army's Cold Region Research Laboratory, DOE, NASA, NOAA, and USGS both contribute to and depend on U.S. Antarctic Program infrastructure.

Finally, the U.S. presence on the continent is manifested through the Antarctic Treaty, which reserves that large region for peaceful purposes only, contains strong measures for environmental protection, and encourages cooperation in science. The Antarctic Treaty itself is an experiment, and a success. It came into being in Washington, D.C., signed in 1959 by the 12 nations that performed the world's first broad, coordinated program of research in Antarctica during the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year. Now the treaty has grown to 43 adhering countries, representing two-thirds of the people on our planet. These nations meet regularly -- the 23rd such consultative meeting has just concluded in Lima, Peru -- to guide and safeguard world interests in the remarkable south polar region.

South Pole Station safety/environment upgrade (SPSE) and modernization (SPSM)

By the early 1990s it had become abundantly clear that Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station would not be capable of supporting world class research much longer. Modifying it to meet the increasingly sophisticated requirement of modern science was not an option, in view of the fact that its design life had already been exceeded and that it posed serious safety and environmental concerns.

The NSF U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel chaired by Norman Augustine substantiated this condition in its April 1997 report, concluding that, "The existing South Pole Station should be replaced with an Optimized Station. This construction can be accomplished by the year 2005 if the necessary budgetary steps are taken immediately (to initiate funding for the period FY98-FY02)." The Panel also recommended that several safety and environmental upgrades be initiated immediately.

NSF accepted these recommendations and requested funding for the South Pole Safety and Environmental project (SPSE) in 1997. Congress appropriated $25 million to fully fund this emergency measure. SPSE provides a new garage/shop, new fuel storage tanks, and a new power plant.

The Optimized Station recommended by the External Panel consists of a core infrastructure that initially houses 110 persons and that could be expanded to support up to 150 persons on site. It includes an elevated housing and scientific research complex, with electronic systems and communications. The project is termed the South Pole Station Modernization (SPSM), to distinguish it from SPSE.

NSF received initial SPSM funding in FY98. To date, Congress has appropriated $109-million of the $128-million required to complete the project. Our FY00 budget request of $5-million would bring us within $14-million of the amount needed for completion.

Both SPSE and SPSM are proceeding vigorously. The summer building season is short at Pole, lasting about 3½ months from November to February. Exterior work must be done during this time of 24 hours of sunlight and relative warmth. To insure on-schedule FY05 project completion, in summer three construction shifts are scheduled per 24-hour period, 6 days each week. During the 8½-month winter isolation the smaller construction crew is scheduled for a single shift of 9 hours each day, 6 days a week. The construction is carefully phased to achieve what is possible in the two periods, with great attention given to on-time completion of planned tasks within each period.

SPSE is on budget at 72% completion, SPSM is on budget at 8% completion, and both are on schedule. Congressional funding allowed for substantial advance procurement that enabled us to deliver 400,000 pounds of construction material to South Pole ahead of schedule, an enormous advantage given the narrow window of opportunity for the one annual cargo ship that gets to McMurdo and the short summer at Pole. This situation both will allow us to take advantage of opportunities as they arise to accelerate construction and will serve as a hedge against potential weather and procurement delays.

SPSE construction. SPSE commenced during the FY98 summer season (November through mid-February) with completion of the garage/shop arch. The fuel-storage project was completed during the FY99 summer with installation, piping, and partial fueling of 45 10,000-gallon steel fuel tanks inside containment shells (replacing nine 25,000-gallon rubber fuel bladders).

The garage/shop shell (footings, floor, walls, and roof) also was completed during the FY99 summer season. During the current austral winter the interior, fire/life/safety systems, and collateral equipment installation are being completed. Occupancy is scheduled for December 1999.

Completion of the new fuel storage and garage/shop represent tremendous improvements in engineered-in safety and environmental protection systems.

The FY00 season will focus on the final SPSE work-the new power plant. The plant's steel arch cover and footings, floor, walls, and roof will be constructed concurrently, again allowing for interior construction during winter. The plant is scheduled for completion and occupancy January 2001, which completes SPSE on schedule.

SPSM construction. In FY99, work on SPSM focused on procurement. During the FY00 summer season the first phase of construction will begin with the underground passageway to the new power plant and the vertical tower access to the main elevated station.

The rest of the construction, scheduled for completion in FY05, includes both wings of the elevated station holding housing, food service, medical science, administration, electronic systems, communications, multipurpose area, and an emergency power plant.

Impact of SPSE and SPSM on U.S. Antarctic Program science

LC-130 airlift. Two LC-130 airlift issues currently are impacting access to the continent by science groups that need to get into the field far from McMurdo: the LC-130 modernization program (discussed in "Transition from Navy to Air National Guard," below) and the increased allocation of airlift to the support of construction at the South Pole. Before SPSE and SPSM, NSF had been allocating approximately 180 LC-130 missions per year to the direct support of science projects throughout the U.S. Antarctic Program. During the three field seasons beginning with the 1999-2000 austral summer, only about 80 science missions per year can be allocated, to keep Pole construction on schedule. In the 2 to 3 years that follow, NSF expects to be able to gradually raise the allocation back up to 180 science missions per season. In addition, we are reviewing options that might free up additional LC-130 missions for science; they are discussed below in the sections on weather forecasting and energy conservation.

South Pole resources. The redevelopment of South Pole will remove key constraints-insufficient power, work space, and communications-that have held back scientific research. It will alleviate, but not eliminate, a fourth constraint-a population cap. The decision to include core infrastructure that enables expansion of the station capacity from 110 to 150 now appears to have been wise. Current estimates are that the 110-person capacity will unduly constrain science, even as we rely much more heavily on remote access to enable the research. South Pole's potential for astronomy has been recognized, and results from experiments already on site are promising.

During construction, the South Pole science population is being held more or less steady, whereas overall station population has increased by more than 25 percent because of the presence of construction workers. During construction, access by scientists to direct construction support of their on-site research needs is about 20 percent less than previously.

Summary. Our ability to deploy large new research projects certainly will be curtailed over the next 3 years. But, like the Augustine panel, we are convinced that the capability for research embodied in the new station will more than compensate for the short-term impacts.

Transition from Navy to Air National Guard

March 1999 marked the end of the Navy's logistics support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The transition to contractor and Air Guard support, although complex and involving hundreds of people over a number of years, was virtually transparent to the ultimate customers: the scientists conducting research in Antarctica. This successful transition has resulted in reduced environmental impact to Antarctica due to a reduced number of personnel providing the support and the eliminated duplication of effort. This also will yield future reduced operational costs.

Now that the transition from the Navy is complete, NSF is completing the definition of management relationships among the parties involved in supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program.

We do not expect these management issues to affect support to the program. In fact, the season just completed in Antarctica-the first in which the Air Guard had the primary role in LC-130 operations-was highly successful. Every planned project was supported, and more flights than ever before were made to resupply South Pole Station and to place construction materials there for the modernization program described above.

The Air Force awarded a contract to Raytheon Systems Company in March 1999 to upgrade and modernize two NSF-owned LC-130s to meet Air Force safety and operability standards. These planes will be operated by the 109th Airlift Wing of the NYANG. In FY99 Congress appropriated $20M through the NSF Major Research Equipment account for these upgrades. An additional $12M is requested in FY00 to modernize a third NSF LC-130. Delivery of the three upgraded planes is expected in July 2000, November 2000, and, assuming we receive funds, March 2001.

With delivery of the third plane the 109th will be operating 10 LC-130s in support of NSF science in the Arctic and the Antarctic. NSF and NYANG believe 10 aircraft will be sufficient for both polar missions. The NYANG owns six of the 10 aircraft. NSF owns four-the three being modernized and one new LC-130 H3 delivered in 1996.

Support contractor recompetition

NSF's current 10-year U.S. Antarctic Program support contract, with the firm Antarctic Support Associates (ASA), will expire 31 March 2000. NSF's Office of General Counsel and Office of Budget, Finance, and Award Management advised that extending the contract is not tenable. Accordingly, NSF issued a Request for Proposals on 14 September 1998. It is anticipated that the new contract will be a performance-based, cost-plus-award-fee instrument. The new contract is expected to have a 5-year base period with one optional 5-year period and thus can extend through SPSM.

Proposals were received by the 15 March 1999 deadline. Additional questions are being forwarded to bidders in the competitive range, and best and final offers are expected in July. The process is on schedule to result in a new contract by 1 October 1999.

If a new contractor is selected, there will be a 6-month phase-in between October 1999 and March 2000 during which the new contractor and the current contractor will work together. The phase-in covers the 1999-2000 antarctic summer season. Major activities during phase-in would be: establishing the program headquarters and associated infrastructure in the United States; turnover of records and documents, including SPSM planning software and documents; recruiting and signing of existing contract personnel; turnover of property and equipment; and "over the shoulder" observation of seasonal activities.

To the extent that there is risk to SPSM associated with the transition to a new contractor, that risk is considered mainly a new contractor's lack of familiarity with the project or the unique requirements and conditions of working in Antarctica. This risk will be mitigated by the following:

  • Interagency continuity. The design and review responsibilities are vested in separate architectural and design contractors. Oversight of these activities is by the Pacific Division of Naval Facilities Engineering Command (PACDIV) and NSF. The logistics of moving the materials from California to McMurdo by vessel and then by air to South Pole are the responsibilities of the Military Sealift Command and the New York Air National Guard, respectively. These responsibilities will not be affected by any contractor transition.
  • Procurements. Thanks to Congressional actions NSF and ASA are able to substantially accelerate (by 2 years) the procurements associated with SPSM. A majority of the procurements will have been completed by the end of the transition between the old and the new contractor. Any procurements not completed before a new contract is awarded will be subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) requirements and competitively bid, as is currently done.

  • Phase-in period. The phase-in period provides 6-months as discussed above for the old and new contractors to work together to bring about a smooth transition. NSF staff will work closely with both organizations to ensure transfer of expertise and experience. Offerors have submitted in their proposals, as part of their management plans, how they would conduct the phase-in. NSF has handled transitions between support contractors twice in the past when new contractors were selected for the support contract. Several key NSF staff participated in the most recent contractor transition and will bring experience to the next transition, if one occurs.

  • Retention of experienced labor pool. In each previous change of support contractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program, the new contractor has hired a significant portion of the existing contractor's personnel-from midmanagement to skilled labor. This is standard industry practice that is recognized as good business.

  • Planning and oversight. All ASA documentation, including designs, planning and project management software, and other project documents, belongs to NSF and would be available to a new contractor. NSF has been conducting quarterly SPSM project audits during which ASA and NSF staff go over engineering activity schedules, construction plans and schedules, procurement plans, cost accounting for the project, and other administrative matters associated with the project. This has ensured that NSF staff are as knowledgeable as ASA staff on the status of the project.

  • On-site management. During recent antarctic summer seasons, NSF has placed its experienced managers at McMurdo and South Pole to provide oversight and management for logistics, operations, and facilities management. These managers have an average of nearly 20 years of antarctic and construction management experience and are thoroughly familiar with the project.

NSF is aware that the potential for changing prime contractors in the middle of the SPSM project presents some risk. SPSM and its oversight and management plan have been designed by NSF and its contractors with full regard for the inherent risks associated with construction in Antarctica. We intend to control the additional potential risks associated with changing contractors during the project through careful project management, project oversight, and contractor selection. These precautions are intended to ensure that the transition does not increase the project cost or lengthen the schedule. In fact, we think the major threat to the project schedule is adverse weather.

Research vessel contract recompetition

While on the subject of recompetitions in the Office of Polar Programs I should comment on the status of the Nathaniel B. Palmer. This 308-ft, state-of-the-art, icebreaking research vessel is under full-term lease to the U.S. Antarctic Program. The ship was built to specifications issued by the U.S. Antarctic Program and began service in 1992. Nathaniel B. Palmer is a first-rate platform for global change studies, including biological, oceano-graphic, geological, and geophysical components. It can operate safely year-round in antarctic waters that often are stormy or covered with sea ice. It accommodates 37 scientists and support technicians, has a crew of 22, and is capable of up to 75-day missions.

The 10-year lease will expire in March 2002, and research demand is sufficiently strong that a standard government recompetition is being planned for another 10 years. NSF is developing requirements that will be incorporated into a request for proposals to be issued approximately July 1999, with proposals due in November 1999. The user community has expressed the need for a vessel of approximately similar size and capability of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Facilities improvements

McMurdo. A rough estimate for execution of the long range plan for conventional McMurdo Station facilities is $50-million. Additional infrastructure improvements needed in the McMurdo area are discussed in following sections. NSF has initiated work on the six highest priority activities in the McMurdo long range plan as follows:

  1. Mechanical Equipment Center (MEC) replacement, to be completed in early FY02.
  2. Dining hall and food preparation remodel, to be completed in late FY00.
  3. Power plant upgrade, to include improved waste heat recovery.
  4. Replacement of old, deteriorating fuel storage tanks with new tanks for diesel and aviation fuel and for gasoline, to be completed in FY01 or FY02.
  5. Removal of unused buildings from Observation Hill.
  6. Other projects, including a consolidated work center and warehousing, dormitory rehabilitation, and replacement recreation and science support facilities.

Palmer. At Palmer the two main buildings are being remodeled in four major phases to be completed during austral winter 2001. The remodeling, estimated to cost $3-million, will improve the laboratories, offices, and housing, and enhance the efficiency of science and science support.

Weather forecasting

Weather forecasting in the Antarctic is a challenge. Weather patterns are volatile, often changing with little advance indication. Observations and real-time data, compared with those in most of the civilized world, are sparse, making it difficult to predict those changes. When the weather worsens significantly during a flight in ways that weren't predicted, aircraft frequently are required to return to the point of origin, since there are no nearby alternative landing sites. This results in lost time and wasted expense. Such turn-around flights are not uncommon, and if they could be reduced in number we could increase the number of missions in support of research.

Better weather forecasting could lead to more effective air operations and greatly enhance our ability to support science. In the last few years vastly better meteorology systems have become available, and the following improvements are planned or underway:

Fog prediction. Fog at McMurdo is localized and highly transient, can occur rapidly, and can close an airfield. Planning is under way for a new fog detection network consisting of unattended automatic weather stations in concentric rings to the south of McMurdo airfields where the fog originates.

Meteorological sensors. New sensors that measure temperature, pressure, and cloud platforms have been procured for all U.S. antarctic airfield towers to provide direct, remote reading to forecasters and the tower.

ASOS. Automatic Surface Observation Systems (ASOS), a National Weather Service recognized remote system, are installed in strategic locations near McMurdo (Pegasus glacier-ice runway, Marble Point helicopter fuel depot) where other sensors are absent.

Balloon tracking. McMurdo's old theodolite tracking system for upper air balloon sondes (probes) was replaced in 1998-1999 with a new, automated GPS tracking system attached to each weather balloon that provides more accurate data with less maintenance and down time. This kind of system also will be used at South Pole this coming season.

Satellite weather images. Traditional weather imaging satellites provide coverage at McMurdo for 15 hours each day. For the remaining 9 hours nontraditional satellites such as SeaWiFS (typically for sensing ocean bio-optical properties-but able to give clear weather images) and the Russian Meteor satellites are expected to provide images this coming season. Initial Meteor images were received in the 1998-1999 season. The usefulness of the Meteor data will be enhanced this season with upgraded software.

Forecast systems. When preparing flight briefs and terminal forecasts, McMurdo meteorologists use information from a variety of sources. An automated local area network is being completed to serve as a repository for meteorological data and for tools to correlate and display data from dissimilar sources. Forecasters thus will have current information in a single repository and will be able to work more effectively.

Basic research and modeling. U.S. Antarctic Program meteorologists interface with university and DoD weather modeling centers to determine which mesoscale models may be successful in the Antarctic. NSF has continuing grants with meteorologists and climatologists who are providing the basic science and intellectual framework that can lead to improvements in the mesoscale models.

Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems (ATCALS)

The ATCALS challenge is to improve U.S. Antarctic Program airlift safety and efficiency while minimizing acquisition and infrastructure costs. NSF is supporting these initiatives through its ATC provider, SPAWARS, which has instituted employment incentives to retain experienced personnel in the U.S. Antarctic Program's unusual annual deployment cycle of half a year at McMurdo and half a year off.

  • A working group and an annually updated 5-year plan are managing the upgrade of existing equipment to enhance performance and reliability.

  • NSF tested in McMurdo a prototype digital global positioning system (DGPS) and an Air National Guard mobile microwave landing system for precision-controlled landing, with positive results.

  • NSF expects to test an automatic dependent surveillance system on its helicopters, with possible expansion to the LC-130s, that continually informs a central site of the location of aircraft.

Energy conservation

Improved facilities. The U.S. Antarctic Program imports all the fossil fuel it uses in Antarctica. Reductions in fuel consumption can save money, reduce environmental impact, and free up what would have been fuel transport missions for scientists and their equipment. Thus a criterion of the McMurdo facilities plan is to save energy. As noted above, new construction at McMurdo and the other U.S. stations is replacing old, inefficient buildings with energy-efficient ones. An energy conservation project in McMurdo, to be completed in 2002, takes waste heat from the diesel engines in the electrical power plant to heat buildings (cogeneration).

Reducing flights to Pole. Aircraft use about half the fuel delivered to McMurdo Station. Transport to South Pole, now done entirely by LC-130 flights from McMurdo, uses some two-thirds of each season's LC-130 missions (an LC-130 burns about 4,500 gallons of fuel to deliver 3,500 gallons to Pole). To maximize the load on each flight to Pole, fuel is carried in wing tanks to be delivered to the station when the cargo load is less than the weight the plane can carry. Still, LC-130 flights are one of our scarcest resources, and a priority is to minimize the Pole flights and free the precious LC-130s for missions such as open-field landings at remote antarctic research sites on snow or ice where there is no alternative.

Several concepts are being analyzed. One is to use oversnow traverse vehicles-tractor trains-to resupply South Pole Station from a landing site closer to Pole than McMurdo is. Another would circle an Air Force KC-135 tanker over South Pole so that LC-130s equipped for air-to-air refueling could shuttle fuel down from the tanker to the station. A third idea is to build a hard-surface snow-ice runway at South Pole (comparable to the prepared Pegasus runway on glacier ice near McMurdo) so that wheeled airplanes can land with larger payloads, at lower cost per pound, than is possible with an LC-130 making a ski landing.

Alternative energy sources. NSF uses wind turbines-and solar power and heating-at locations in Antarctica, including the satellite ground station at Black Island (near McMurdo), in newer buildings at South Pole, and at research camps.

For every 10 percent that we can reduce energy consumption at South Pole, we free up some seven LC-130 missions for direct science support. The new buildings at the South Pole will have photovoltaic panels on the exterior walls. The Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and DOE tested photovoltaic units there to determent the reliability of manufactured units under ambient conditions. Although the panels will provide only a fraction of the station's power, performance data will be obtained for consideration for other polar sites.

The primary source of heat for buildings is and will be waste heat from the power plant. When SPSM is complete the supplemental fuel used for heating the 100,000 square feet of occupied space will be 12,000 gallons per year. Fuel heating will be needed only during very low temperatures and low electrical power requirements. The present South Pole Station uses about 70,000 gallons of supplemental fuel a year to heat the 64,000 square feet of indoor space.

NSF is partnering with DOE to test a 100-kilowatt cold-weather wind turbine for South Pole, McMurdo, and arctic locations. Again, the objective is to reduce environmental impact and fuel transport cost for these remote sites.

South Pole Station satellite communications

Information technology -- required by the sophistication of modern research but also driven by its potential for enhancing safety and efficiency -- is a vital element of U.S. Antarctic Program infrastructure. Advances that have revolutionized the modern world are mirrored in basic research, with impacts felt by the U.S. Antarctic Program. Technologically advanced research on the leading edge of discovery is now done at the South Pole, facilitated by advances in computing, networking, and satellite communications. Deep-field researchers, once isolated, now stay connected with colleagues and information sources worldwide. The enabling effect of information technology has stimulated research, with increased demands for yet better information at remote research sites.

South Pole Station lies beyond view of conventional geostationary communications satellites and therefore is denied access to communications taken for granted in mid-latitudes. While some special communications satellites (typically government-owned) in elliptical orbits cover Northern Hemisphere high latitudes, they have brief contact with the Antarctic and cannot provide useful communications between Antarctica and the mid-latitudes. The tiny human population beyond 65°S latitude is not a market for commercial satellite operators, resulting in little interest in deliberately providing services in the interior of Antarctica.

The Internet service that South Pole now gets relies on obsolete Government satellites that have lasted well beyond their expected lifetimes. These old spacecraft have moved slowly, over 10 to 12 years, into orbits that for part of each day enable them to be seen simultaneously at the geographic South Pole and in the continental United States. Multiple spacecraft are required to meet time-of-day coverage required by the research community, as each satellite can provide only 4 to 6 hours of contact. The challenge to NSF is that growth in science at South Pole will outstrip these capabilities, and the satellites are at risk of failure.

The present South Pole communications constellation consists of these satellites:

ATS-3 provides voice and very low speed data transfer. It is used for voice coordination of the more advanced South Pole satellite links and for morale telephone calls. NASA intends to deactivate ATS-3 once emergent commercial global satellite cellular telephone systems such as Iridium and ICO Global are established, probably in early FY01. NSF will experiment with Iridium at South Pole during the upcoming austral summer to begin transition of voice communications from ATS-3.

LES-9 provides Internet service. NSF has a support agreement with DoD (Air Force Space Command) for access through FY00 and will update the agreement with DoD's U.S. Space Command as a new sponsor beginning in FY01. LES-9 should provide service for South Pole through FY04. NSF will keep the option to transfer moderate-rate data services (equivalent to high speed dial-up telephone modems) to commercial providers as they become available and competitive.

GOES-3 is a key long-term South Pole resource. The satellite has broadband communications initially intended by NOAA to relay weather imagery to users. It transmits at rates now widely deployed for Internet access. The spacecraft has redundant systems that we believe make it reliable for long-term communications while other options are explored. NSF and NOAA soon will conclude an agreement that transfers control of the satellite to NSF for its exclusive use to support polar communications. NOAA'S GOES-2 satellite can service South Pole now, and GOES-7 will drift into a position to provide service in about 2006.

TDRSS F1. With the active support of NASA, NSF has obtained highly capable wideband communications via NASA's original Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS F1). TDRSS F1 service, introduced to Pole in January 1998, is the most advanced communications ever implemented at South Pole. It supports astronomy and astrophysics programs that must transfer very large sets of observational data and software and that, because of TDRSS, can manage South Pole instruments remotely.

NASA agreed in February 1999 to continue TDRSS F1 support of NSF science, subject to periodic review. The design life of the satellite has been exceeded; some subsystems have failed, and as it ages the satellite is responding less surely to ground control. NASA believes it can provide TDRSS F3, a comparable satellite, once it becomes visible to South Pole circa 2005. But TDRSS F1 is unlikely to remain operational until then, and NSF is pursuing alternatives to fill the gap and provide redundancy in wideband access until 2005.

Alternative communications for South Pole Station

Last Fall we commissioned studies of alternative communications satellites-military, other government, and commercial-for South Pole. And other options are being studied. For example, a fiber optic cable could be laid from South Pole to the antarctic coast then an ocean cable onward to Australia, or a fiber optic cable could go from South Pole overland to a point where a ground station (to be built) would see conventional satellites. Satellites from failed commercial launches, such as the recent Orion-3, might be accessible. NASA is helping us search for new opportunities.

At an NSF-sponsored workshop in March 1999, South Pole science users identified their requirements. The NSF contractors presented options: high cost and risk (more than $200-million for the land-ocean fiber optic cable), intermediate cost and risk (tens of millions of dollars for a dedicated satellite, land fiber optic cable, and reclaimed new commercial satellites from failed launches), and low cost with high risk (a few million dollars for scavenged old satellites). The workshop concluded that two priority requirements for research are continuous connectivity at lower bandwidths for routine daily activities and windows of high bandwidth to transmit large batches of data and computer software.

Our preliminary studies have not found DoD or National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) wideband resources that would service our region. Contact with South Pole would be intermittent and of low capacity. However, NSF has formally requested that the Office of the Under Secretary of the Air Force, Space, include wherever possible U.S. Antarctic Program requirements in operations planning and systems acquisitions managed by U.S. Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office.

We plan to have our analysis of near- and mid-term plans by Fall 1999, to include the development of a contingency plan for TDRSS F1 alternatives based on available satellite resources.

Palmer Station communications

NSF has started an engineering project to give Palmer Station (latitude 64o S) conventional commercial geosynchronous satellite communications in 2000 for continuous Internet, telephone, and facsimile service. This service will replace existing limited Internet service now provided by the LES-9 satellite and low cost telephone service provided by the ATS-3 satellite.

Palmer Station now gets broadband digital service from INMARSAT, a commercial maritime satellite that provides continuous Internet access, although at high cost.

McMurdo Station regional communications

Wireless. NSF is assessing wireless communications for small, seasonal field teams within 200 miles of McMurdo. Even small research camps these days need Internet, telephone, and year-round remote telemetry. The challenges of rugged terrain, remoteness, and year-round operation are similar to those in rural areas in the United States. NSF is consulting with the Department of Commerce, NTIA Institute of Telecommunications Science, as a Federal expert in rural and emergent wireless communications.

High frequency radio. The high frequency (HF) radio communications system at McMurdo Station is the sole long-distance link with U.S. Antarctic Program aircraft and is the main health, safety, and operational link with field teams beyond line-of-sight to McMurdo. NSF has tasked the SPAWAR Systems Center to modernize the HF radio systems, particularly aviation communications, in the coming 3-year period. While global satellite cellular communications systems (Iridium and the forthcoming ICO Global) may have a role, DoD operates most U.S. Antarctic Program aircraft and expects to use HF radio for the next decade. NSF will seek to phase out HF radio for field camps once the commercial satellite cellular systems stabilize.

Portable earth station. NSF demonstrated a portable satellite earth station during the 1998/99 field season that uses GOES-3 for medium-bandwidth Internet service to a large field camp. The success of the trial resulted in the decision to use this system as an alternative to HF radio for future large camps.

Other satellite activities

NSF and NASA have collaborated since 1994 on a major satellite ground tracking facility at McMurdo. This McMurdo Ground Station (MGS) initially was installed to get synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mapping data of Antarctica from the European ERS-1 and ERS-2 and Canadian RADARSAT satellites. The MGS is now part of the EOS Polar Ground Network of NASA, which includes collaborating tracking stations at high latitudes (Fairbanks, Spitsbergen, and McMurdo).

The high latitude of McMurdo renders it valuable to NASA for recovering data from polar satellites, and for command and telemetry with polar satellites. The Air Force Weather Agency/Air Force Space Command and the NOAA National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System also would like to recover satellite weather data using McMurdo ground stations. NSF and these agencies have begun discussions regarding the possibility.

McMurdo thus can provide a cost effective means to recover Earth-imaging satellite data while simplifying the ground tracking infrastructure needed world-wide. NSF anticipates a benefit to space scientists who depend on rapid access to space-weather data from these spacecraft. NSF also hopes to benefit from the economies of scale involved in the increased demand for commercial satellite communications to transport the data in near-real time to the United States. NSF would share costs with the space agencies in a way that enables increased service to McMurdo at lower cost for the NSF component.

Effect of tourism

Background. Compared to, say, the 48,900,000 foreign tourists who visited the United States in 1997, the antarctic tourist population is minuscule. Nevertheless, the 10,026 antarctic tourists in the 1998-1999 austral summer exceeded the summer population (about 4,000) of the Antarctic Treaty nations' government programs, although the number of tourist person-days was lower than the person-days of government research and support personnel.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) estimates the number of tourists in the coming 1999-2000 season will rise to more than 14,000, attributing part of this surge to Millennium-stimulated travel. But IAATO predicts "Antarctica will remain a specialized and expensive niche destination offered by a limited number of experienced operators focusing on educational voyages to areas of exceptional natural history and wilderness value."

Tourism helps to develop knowledge of the Antarctic, but it introduces the potential for negative impacts on the natural environment and research through the risk and expense of diverting logistics from research to rescue in tourism emergencies, of which there have been several.

Environmental impact. Tourism potentially could affect small sites, such as penguin rookeries, that are popular destinations. Research results are mixed. A 1996 Australian study shows significant reductions in Adélie penguin hatching success and chick survival at a colony disturbed by nest checking for scientific purposes and by station personnel instructed to behave like tourists. On Torgersen Island, near the U.S. Palmer Station, which real tourists visit, NSF-supported research published in 1996 indicates that "tourism as it is currently regulated at Palmer Station does not affect Adélie penguin reproductive success." A 1997 paper shows that some penguin populations on islands near Palmer not visited by tourists have decreased faster than on Torgersen Island. The confounding effect of natural factors has led some scientists to conclude that tourist impact studies need to be based on long-term data collection and detailed studies at key sites.

International response to antarctic tourism. The Antarctic Treaty nations in 1998 adopted the Protocol on Environmental Protection, which strengthens antarctic conservation and waste management measures. The Protocol applies to governmental and nongovernmental activities. In addition, over the years, the Treaty system has considered the effect of tourists and nongovernmental expeditions at several of its consultative meetings. Results have included publication of guidelines for visitors, recommendations that expeditions be covered by insurance or some guarantee to demonstrate responsibility for their activities, and imposition of reporting requirements.

U.S. response. The U.S. Antarctic Program is attentive to tourism. All three U.S. year-round antarctic research stations are tourist destinations. The United States, with its LC-130 long-range ski-equipped airplanes, is uniquely capable of long-distance rescue. And nearly half the antarctic tourists in recent years have been from the United States.

In 1988 the National Science Foundation initiated annual meetings with antarctic tour operators to allocate visits to our research sites and to share information on environmental protection, waste management, and responses to incidents such as fuel spills. Partly as a result, IAATO was founded in 1991 to promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection, mentioned above, strengthens Antarctic Treaty environmental protections that were in place as early as 1964. It is implemented in the United States through the Antarctic Conservation Act (PL 95-541), which applies to Americans in Antarctica and to governmental and private expeditions to Antarctica that are organized in the United States.

The U.S. Government does not support private antarctic expeditions except in emergencies. NSF now requires full cost recovery when it gives emergency assistance and has invoked the practice four times, twice to private adventure expeditions and twice to evacuate ill tourists from cruise ships. We believe cost recovery encourages more careful planning by tour companies, expeditioners, and their financial sponsors.

For the U.S. Antarctic Program, the above measures and the current numbers of antarctic tourists have resulted in acceptable levels of visits to research sites and, with a few notable exceptions, tolerable impact on operations.


The United States is in its fifth continuous decade of research in Antarctica. In 1957, when we started, more than half the continent had not even been seen. New findings continue to emerge today. In the last year researchers netted four species of fish previously unknown to science, drilled to the base of the ice sheet to recover a core with critical information on climate history, obtained an ocean-bottom core revealing volcanic eruptions 25 million years ago that affected the global environment, made precision measurements of the cosmic background radiation at South Pole to help determine the curvature of the universe.

I am committed to assuring that forefront science activity continues to thrive in the U.S. Antarctic Program, even as we upgrade the infrastructure that underpins it and sets the stage for future scientific advance.


ASA - Antarctic Support Associates, Inc.
ASOS - Automatic Surface Observation Systems
ATC - Air Traffic Control
ATCALS - Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems
CFC - Chlorofluorocarbons
DGPS - Digital Global Positioning System
DoD - Department of Defense
DOE - Department of Energy
GPS - Global Positioning System
LC-130 - Ski-equipped C-130 Hercules heavy-lift transport airplane
NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NSF - National Science Foundation
SeaWiFS - Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor satellite
SPAWARS - Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center
SPSE - South Pole Safety and Environment upgrade
SPSM - South Pole Station Modernization
USGS - U.S. Geological Survey