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NSF & Congress


Dr. Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Transportation
and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Coast Guard and
Maritime Transportation
Hearing on National Academy of Sciences
report on Federal Icebreaking Missions

September 26, 2006

Chairman LoBiondo, Ranking Member Filner, and distinguished members of the Committee, I am pleased to appear before the Subcommittee for the first time to speak on behalf of the National Science Foundation. NSF is an extraordinary agency, with an equally extraordinary mission of enabling discovery, supporting education, and driving innovation — all in service to society and the nation.


The National Science Foundation was established in 1950 to initiate and support basic scientific research and programs, to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences, and to initiate and support research fundamental to the engineering process and programs to strengthen engineering research potential and engineering education programs at all levels in the various fields of engineering (NSF Act of 1950; 42 USC 1861 et seq).

The Agency also chairs the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), created under federal statute to coordinate Arctic research sponsored by federal agencies, and it manages the U.S. Antarctic Program on behalf of the U.S. government as directed by Presidential Memorandum 6646 (1982).

The Arctic and Antarctic are premier natural laboratories whose extreme environments and geographically unique settings enable research on fundamental phenomena and processes not feasible elsewhere. In addition, climate changes now being observed in the earth's Polar Regions require careful study in view of their possible implications for northern residents and for those living in the mid-latitudes. Changes in Polar Regions are tightly coupled to the global earth system, with changes in one strongly impacting the other.

Polar research depends heavily on ships capable of operating in ice-covered regions, either as research platforms in the Arctic and Southern Oceans or as key components of the logistics chain supporting on-continent research in Antarctica. Many areas in the Arctic and Antarctic are only accessible by ship. As the primary U.S. supporter of fundamental research in these regions, NSF is the primary customer of polar icebreaker and ice-strengthened vessel services for scientific research purposes.

NSF responsibilities in the Arctic and in Antarctica take somewhat different forms, and with the Committee's indulgence I'll explain briefly how they differ with respect to icebreaker requirements. But in both cases the question of how best to meet those responsibilities boils down to consideration of three factors: cost, performance, and policy.


NSF supports research on the Arctic Ocean, atmosphere, and land areas, including marine and terrestrial ecosystems and their relationships to the well-being of local populations. In addition to research in individual disciplines, support is provided for interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the Arctic region, including its role in global climate. Over the last decade, changes have been measured in the distribution of polar ice cover, in atmospheric composition, Artic ocean conditions, some terrestrial parameters, as well as in northern ecosystems. Residents of the North are seeing these environmental changes affect their lives. It is important to determine whether these changes correlate to a short-term shift in regional atmospheric or ocean processes or whether they are the result of longer-term global change.

In the Arctic, science on land and in coastal areas tends to be based at a few sparsely distributed, remote outposts, and in many cases access by ship is the most advantageous means, even for projects that are not inherently oceanographic. In its few years of service, the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy has supported research in a variety of areas including biology, sea ice, marine geology and geophysics, cartography, physical and chemical oceanography and atmospheric science.

As research has advanced and become more technologically sophisticated, NSF has increasingly relied on coordinated international multi-ship expeditions to access the Arctic region and laboratory facilities. For example, while the USCGC Healy does have the capability to work alone in the deep Arctic, any vessel by itself is more risky, making multi-ship arrangements necessary in lieu of an icebreaker research platform with more robust capabilities. International collaborations also have become necessary, as the demands for research aboard the Healy have intensified. Recent international partnerships with Sweden involving their icebreaker, the Oden; and with Germany and their icebreaker, the Polarstern; have been highly successful, as have collaborations by NSF, NOAA and other agencies with various Canadian, Chinese, Russian and other ships.

Arctic Requirements: Ship Cost and Reliability

According to information provided by the Coast Guard, NSF typically uses approximately 90 percent of the 185-200 days current USCG deployment standards allow Healy to spend at sea. Science programs are limited by the ship time available on the USCGC Healy and also by the number of berths available for science. Healy can accommodate up to 50 scientific personnel in addition to its operational Coast Guard crew of about 80.

The Healy also faces limitations in its icebreaking capacity, especially during the spring when the ice coverage north of Alaska has been thick enough in some years (2004, 2005) to beset the ship for several days.

Under the current arrangement, NSF is responsible for funding Healy operations and maintenance while the Coast Guard is responsible for operating the ship and carrying out its maintenance program. Coordination between the two agencies is arranged under an MOA in which NSF provides the Coast Guard with a set of operational requirements annually and the Coast Guard responds with an operational plan and cost estimate based on those requirements. Total Healy costs are approximately $20 million annually, or about $100,000 per day, at sea.

I will return to the issues of cost, availability and policy shortly.

Plans have been underway for several years to construct a new ice-strengthened ship that could support scientific studies in the waters around Alaska. NSF has assigned high priority to building this ship, the Alaska Region Research Vessel (ARRV), and construction funds were included in the President’s FY07 budget request. It is estimated that it will take 2.5 years to construct and deploy the ship once a shipyard contract has been issued. The ship will likely be operated by a university consortium following the model of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) which operates a number of research vessels. The ARRV, which will replace the Alpha Helix, will be designed to work in up to 3 feet of ice. The ARRV will thus be able to conduct research cruises year round in the Gulf of Alaska and the southern Bering Sea; and in the summer, as far north as the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas during minimum ice cover. During heavy ice periods in the Bering Sea, the ARRV would probably need the assistance of the Healy. Estimated operating costs are about $20K – $30K/day.

Finally, we need better access to the deep ocean in the Arctic. Options for supporting research in the deep Arctic should be integral to any study of future icebreaker needs.

In conclusion, the Healy is a capable and relatively new ship that, with proper maintenance, can be the mainstay of U.S. Arctic Ocean research for years to come. However, under the current operational model, its operating cost is high and its capability limited.


NSF provides approximately 85 percent of the U.S. funding for fundamental research in the Antarctic and the southern ocean. This research addresses a wide array of topics across many disciplines. For instance, researchers are studying topics as wide-ranging as the evolution of the ozone hole; the impact of extreme environments on gene expression; the effects of ultraviolet radiation on living organisms; the relationship between changes in the ice sheet and global sea level; global weather, climate, and ocean circulation; the role of Antarctica in global tectonics and the evolution of life through geologic time; and the early evolution of our universe, as well as its current composition.

This research requires access to ships serving two quite different functions: multi-purpose icebreakers that can operate in the Southern Ocean as research platforms that also resupply our coastal Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula; and heavy-duty icebreakers that can open a resupply channel through fast ice to McMurdo Station. From McMurdo, supplies are transferred to the U.S. research station at the South Pole and to temporary remote field stations at various points on the continent. These two requirements are met in quite different ways.

Antarctic Ship-Based Research Platforms: Ship Cost, Availability and Policy

U.S. Antarctic Program ship-based research and Palmer Station resupply depend primarily on two privately-owned vessels, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) and the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP).

The NBP is leased by NSF's prime contractor, currently Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC), from the Louisiana-based shipping company, Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO). The vessel was built to specifications developed on the basis of input from the science community. The ship is an ABS A2 icebreaker capable of breaking 3 feet of level ice continuously at 3 knots, with 13,000 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 6,800 long tons. She is outfitted with all of the winches and A-frames necessary for deploying and retrieving oceanographic instrumentation. She is fully outfitted with on-board oceanographic instrumentation and a networked computer suite, including multi-beam sonar, and has 5,900 ft2 of lab space and 4,076 ft2 of open deck space for oceanographic work and staging.

The NBP averages 300 days a year underway in support of science.

As is the case for the NBP, the Laurence M. Gould is leased by Raytheon from Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO). Also like the NBP, the vessel was designed and built on the basis of input from the science community. The ship is smaller than the NBP and has less ice breaking capability, as it was designed to operate in the more benign ice regions surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship is an ABS A1 ice-strengthened vessel with 4,600 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 3,400 long tons and can break one foot of level ice at a continuous 3 knots. She is fully instrumented with on-board oceanographic instruments and a networked computer suite. The LMG has the dual purpose of supporting oceanographic science and providing re-supply to Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The LMG averages 320 days a year underway in support of scientific research and associated logistics.

Annual costs for the NPB and LMG are $16.3M and $7.5M, respectively, resulting in respective day costs of $54.3K and $23.4K for these ships.

Antarctic Station Resupply: Ship Cost, Reliability and Policy

As noted above, the resupply of the McMurdo and South Pole Stations, as well as of temporary remote field stations in Antarctica, depends on gaining access to the McMurdo pier through the ice in McMurdo Sound. In most previous years, the channel was opened by one U.S. Coast Guard Polar Class vessel (either the Polar Star or the Polar Sea), but more recently two icebreaking vessels have been needed due to extreme ice conditions and concerns about the reliability of the aging Polar Class vessels.

After opening the channel, the icebreaker escorts two vessels, a tanker and a freighter, to and from the ice pier at McMurdo. These re-supply vessels are ice-strengthened commercial vessels chartered by the Military Sealift Command (MSC). (The Navy used to operate all of their own tankers and freighters, but more recently has depended on commercial contractors for construction, maintenance and staffing of vessels. As a result, MSC now charters virtually all of the tankers and freighters used by the DoD either through a direct industry charter or through a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) arrangement.)

Two years ago, acting on advice from the Coast Guard that a second icebreaker should be brought in to assist the Polar Star, NSF chartered the Russian icebreaker Krasin for the purpose. The Coast Guard's Polar Sea was undergoing repairs and no other U.S. icebreakers other than Healy were available – but Healy was needed in the Arctic. Last year the Polar Sea was undergoing extensive repair. NSF again chartered the Russian icebreaker Krasin and held Polar Star in reserve (and eventually brought her in to assist in the final stages of the break-in). The situation for the coming year is again similar. Polar Sea is ready for duty but the Coast Guard has recommended that a backup vessel be employed. NSF has therefore nearly concluded a charter for the Swedish icebreaker, Oden.

The USCG has performed its icebreaking mission in Antarctica with distinction for many decades, but with increasing difficulty in recent years. Its two Polar Class icebreakers are nearing the end of their estimated lifetime and are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to keep in service. The need to charter the Krasin and Oden has already been mentioned. Given this state of affairs, NSF has given careful consideration to how best to meet the needs of the scientific community over the long-term.

Under the current arrangement between NSF and the Coast Guard, NSF provides all the funding for USCG icebreaker operations and maintenance, and the Coast Guard carries out those duties. NSF provided $55.74M for operation of the USCG polar class icebreakers in 2006. In addition, NSF provided approximately $8 million for fuel and charter of Krasin. When chartering commercial vessels such as the Krasin and the Oden, NSF pays only for the time that the ships are under charter.


As noted above, NSF has met the research community's need for research platforms in the Southern Ocean through long-term contracts with private firms for ice-strengthened ships and icebreakers and through partnerships that provide access to other country's research vessels. For resupply of McMurdo and South Pole Stations, NSF has depended until recently entirely on U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers secured through reimbursement arrangements, and on chartered Military Sealift Command capabilities. More recently, NSF has had to arrange for charted vessels to complement USCG capabilities. In the Arctic, NSF has relied on the Coast Guard's Healy and on partnerships with other countries. Once constructed and commissioned, the Arctic Regional Research Vessel (ARRV) will significantly increase the capacity for ship-based research in the coastal Arctic regions and where ice cover is not too deep.

A variety of models have and are being used by the U.S and other countries for meeting polar icebreaker needs. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Chilean and Argentinean Navies operate their icebreakers using military personnel. Some countries build their ships to meet military specifications and others do not. The German research icebreaker, the Polarstern, is owned by the government but operated by a private contractor. The Swedish government's operational arrangements for the Oden are similar to the German model. Both the Oden and the Polarstern are able to operate more than 300 days annually as a consequence of ship design and mode of operation. The Arctic Regional Research Vessel (ARRV) will be operated by civilian crews under contract to the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory Systems (UNOLS).

As noted above, NSF employs a contractor to operate and maintain the privately-owned Laurence M. Gould and Nathanial B. Palmer. The ships were built under a long-term lease agreement between the ship-owners and the Federal government, such that the construction costs are partially amortized over the duration of the lease (with the ship reverting to the owner at the government's option at the end of the lease). These ships also operate more than 300 days annually.

Finally, and as noted previously, the U.S. Military Sealift Command meets its needs (and those of NSF's for transport to McMurdo Station) either through commercial charters for ships and crews, or through government-owned, contractor-operated arrangements.


International cooperation to provide icebreaker research platforms will surely increase, both in arranging multi-ship expeditions and in sharing platforms. Certainly as Germany and the European community move forward in constructing the planned Aurora Borealis, NSF will work to establish mutually beneficial partnerships.

NSF's commitment to polar research and its responsibility for management of the U.S. Antarctic Program remains constant and therefore perpetuates the need for an icebreaker to open the shipping channel through the Ross Sea to enable resupply of the McMurdo and South Pole stations. Because opening the channel to McMurdo requires only a fraction of the time a modern icebreaker can operate annually, there may be interest among shipbuilders in providing icebreaker services to the government under a contract in which the builder can lease the ship to others (other countries or private firms) during the remainder of the year.

Clearly, the economics and efficiencies of the various acquisition and operating models merit further study. For research in the Arctic, the Healy should be a mainstay for many years to come, though its utility is restricted by its 200-day operational limitation. The Healy's inability to access the deep Arctic during periods of heavy ice cover is another limitation. These limitations, combined with a military deployment mode, make the Healy as currently operated, a very expensive way to meet the needs of the research community. NSF has proposed in staff level discussions with the Coast Guard that we engage in a joint study to explore ways to operate the ship in a more cost-effective manner. Of course the result will depend on the range of missions the ship will be expected to meet.

And as noted above, once in service the ARRV will be a valuable additional resource for Arctic research. Of equal importance is the need for an icebreaker research platform that is capable of supporting deep Arctic research.

For Antarctic research the issues are different. The two existing Coast Guard Polar Class ships are at or close to the end of their service life. They have become unreliable and very expensive to operate and maintain. The overriding question is how to open the channel through the ice to McMurdo Station so that year-round operation of the nation's McMurdo and South Pole stations can continue. This year-round occupation is central to demonstrating the "active and influential presence" which is the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Antarctica as articulated in Presidential Memorandum No. 6646 on U.S. Antarctic Policy and Programs (February 5, 1982). Other factors contributing to this presence are the 600 days annually that NSF's research vessels, the LM Gould and the NB Palmer, operate in Antarctic waters; the annual visit of the Coast Guard cutter to the Ross Sea; the approximately twenty C-17 Air Force flights annually that fly passengers and cargo between New Zealand and McMurdo; and the more than 400 Air National Guard LC-130 flights annually that provide transportation for people and equipment throughout the continent.

In considering how best to insure the continued annual resupply of McMurdo Station and to meet our responsibility for the entire U.S. Antarctic Program, NSF operates in accordance with U.S. Policy and the instructions contained in Presidential Memorandum No. 6646, that "Every effort shall be made to manage the program in a manner that maximizes cost effectiveness and return on investment."

Accordingly, and after consultations with officials in OSTP and OMB, I wrote on May 31, 2006, to the chair of the NAS/NRC icebreaker study, Dr. Anita Jones, as follows: "Given the rapidly escalating costs of government providers for icebreaking services and the uncertain availability of USCG icebreakers beyond the next two years, it is NSF's intention to … [seek] competitive bids for icebreaking services that support the broad goals of the USAP. This competition will be open to commercial, government, and international service providers." The request for proposals will not be for ships but rather for services and we would expect the service providers to use their ships for other purposes when not in service to meet NSF needs. Thus the cost to the Agency should be substantially reduced.

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee to speak on behalf of the National Science Foundation. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you may have.