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NSF & Congress


Dr. Kelly Falkner
Deputy Director
Office of Polar Programs
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Transportation
and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Coast Guard and
Maritime Transportation

December 1, 2011

Chairman LoBiondo, Ranking Member Larsen and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to appear before the Subcommittee to speak in my capacity as Deputy Director of the Office of Polar Programs. Let me first note for context that the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is privileged to chair the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee under the President's National Science and Technology Council that coordinates key research activities in the Arctic. We appreciate this opportunity to discuss how the Foundation is meeting its icebreaking needs for research in the Arctic as well as for research and operations in Antarctic waters that NSF coordinates on behalf of the U.S. government.

As NSF executes its mission to promote the progress of science, it must continuously anticipate logistical requirements that enable frontier science and engineering research. With respect to advancing the scientific frontiers to understand our planet, NSF bears a critical responsibility for providing scientists with access to the oceans, which not only dominate the surface area of the earth and but are vital to life as we know it.

I focus today on the polar oceans. While they comprise only about ten percent of global ocean area, the polar seas exert a disproportionate influence on our climate and global carbon cycling. Scientists have documented recent changes in the polar oceans that have significant global implications and demand more research and analysis to understand.

The science community accordingly places a premium on improving knowledge of the polar oceans--the Arctic and Southern oceans--in order to better project future climate, the rate of sea level rise and the fate of important marine ecosystems upon which we depend for food and biodiversity.

I will first outline the important needs of the U.S. research community for polar ocean access from NSF's perspective as the predominant source of funding for fundamental research in these regions. I will then offer some brief comments on Section 307 of HR 2838, the authorization bill for U.S. Coast Guard appropriations for FY 2012 through 2015. I will conclude my testimony by highlighting some of the globally relevant research areas for which the U.S. polar marine research community requires icebreaker capabilities.

As an indication of the strong international interest in research on the polar oceans I point out that a substantial number of countries--Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Korea, Japan, Norway, Russia and South Africa--have, through their own research enterprises, recently constructed or are in the process of bringing into being new ice-capable research ships. Absent the U.S. polar class icebreakers, only Russia currently has the heavy icebreaker capability needed to access the Arctic Ocean in winter; only Russia and Sweden currently have the proven capability to provide resupply access for two of our nation's three year-round research stations on the Antarctic continent.

Heightened international interest in polar regions is driven in part by changes underway in the Arctic; increased human activity in the Arctic has important implications for the environment, commerce and security that you have heard about in testimony today. Underpinning an appropriate national response to these changes is an urgent need for coordinated and enhanced research efforts. NSF has been a strong supporter and partner in the ongoing interagency process of coordinating Arctic Region policy. It is of course important for NSF to coordinate and leverage its Arctic research program investments in this regard.

NSF is providing funding for an important new ship, the SIKULIAQ, which will begin supporting scientific research in 2014. As a light-duty icebreaker, SIKULIAQ is designed for open water and is able to operate in ice up to about three-feet-thick. It will be extremely important for studying ecosystems in the Gulf of Alaska and southern Bering Sea, and in summer as far north as the Chukchi Sea, some of which, in addition to being scientifically interesting, are among the most productive fisheries in the world.

Through Memoranda of Agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard, NSF has made use of Coast Guard icebreakers to meet NSF's needs. The only U.S.-owned research icebreaker currently capable of operating in the Arctic and Southern oceans is the 12-year-old medium-duty USCG Cutter HEALY, which was designed some 20 years ago. HEALY can operate routinely in ice up to 4.5 feet continuously at 3 knots and 8 feet back-and-ram. HEALY has been and will continue to be a primary support research icebreaker for NSF-supported researchers in the years to come, working alone and also in company with other nation's research icebreakers; by working together the ships effectively expand each other's capability to provide access for research in multi-year ice. While focused on science support, HEALY is a commissioned military vessel, capable of executing all Coast Guard missions.

HEALY has not been deployed to the Southern ocean in support of marine research; however, HEALY has supported POLAR SEA on logistic resupply of McMurdo. NSF-supported researchers in that ocean rely on two leased vessels, the NATHANIEL B. PALMER and the LAWRENCE M. GOULD, both owned by Edison Chouest Offshore. Both of these ships were designed and built to the specifications of the U.S. science community nearly 20 years ago. The NATHANIEL B. PALMER's capability in ice is somewhat greater than that of SIKULIAQ while the LAWRENCE M. GOULD is designed to operate in the more benign one-foot ice regimes typical of the Antarctic Peninsula. Thus, U.S. research ships cannot provide access to some of the more scientifically important portions of the Southern Ocean, particularly those within the sea ice pack and extending up to the ice sheet edge around the perimeter of Antarctica. We were able to provide access to our research community for several years (2007-2010) through a partnership with Sweden that supported joint research expeditions aboard the Swedish icebreaker ODEN. However, this year Sweden concluded that it needed ODEN at home to support marine transportation in northern ice-covered waters. As a result, the U.S. no longer has access to that capability. Our only domestic alternative to ODEN would require the Coast Guard to re-deploy HEALY from current operations in the Arctic, where it is in heavy demand by researchers. Because HEALY can only offer 185 at-sea science days annually under its current arrangements, any attempt to use HEALY in the Southern Ocean would severely impact our ability to support U.S. scientists working in the Arctic Ocean. My Coast Guard colleagues can speak better than I to the impact that deployment of HEALY to the south would have on their missions.

Ice-strengthened research platforms such as the HEALY are essential to keep the U.S. at the forefront of polar research. But I should also emphasize another aspect of NSF's reliance on icebreakers. As articulated in Presidential Memorandum 6646 and reaffirmed in a series of Presidential Decision Directives over the years, U.S. Policy calls for year-round U.S. presence at three research stations in Antarctica, including one at the geographic South Pole. The Memorandum assigns NSF the responsibility for managing the U.S. Antarctic Program, including support for those stations. These stations support forefront research while simultaneously maintaining a presence deemed essential to U.S. geopolitical and diplomatic interests on this continent. In particular, maintaining an active and influential scientific presence in Antarctica enables the U.S. to assume a leading role in governance of the continent under the Antarctic Treaty.

For many years, the U.S. Coast Guard provided the icebreakers to open a seasonal channel in the ice to McMurdo Station for a tanker and a cargo vessel to bring fuel and supplies to McMurdo Station. Without heavy icebreaker support, both McMurdo and South Pole Station would have to close for lack of supplies. When the Coast Guard's heavy icebreakers--the POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA--approached the end of their design lifetimes without funding for maintenance and renovations, NSF began contracting for icebreaker support from other countries, first in 2005 with Russia (KRASIN as a back up to POLAR STAR at USCG suggestion), then in 2006 (again KRASIN with POLAR STAR as back up), then with Sweden (with ODEN as back up to POLAR SEA in 2007 and then ODEN alone in 2008-2011 but with POLAR SEA on standby in 2008-2010), and now once again with a Russian company. Our current contract with the Murmansk Shipping Company will continue for three years. As you might imagine Mr. Chairman, NSF would prefer to rely on U.S. assets and we will continue to work with our sister agencies to develop a robust, long-term solution.

It is for that reason that NSF was disappointed to learn that the House-passed HR 2838 Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2011 called for the decommissioning of POLAR STAR within three years. We had been hoping that the POLAR STAR would be available to provide U.S. sourced icebreaking services once the ongoing renovations to POLAR STAR are completed. Earlier congressional action to provide funding for that renovation gave us hope that the POLAR STAR would be available for use by the U.S. Antarctic program for 7-10 years. NSF will continue to work with the Coast Guard and other ocean science agencies to develop a longer-term solution to the nation's icebreaking needs.

The U.S. research community has led discovery in polar marine science and has led the world in developing understanding of polar marine science and identifying key issues of importance extending well beyond the poles. I think it is fitting to conclude by highlighting some of the globally relevant research areas for which the U.S. polar marine research community uses icebreaker support:

  • Understanding the role of the polar regions in driving global climate The high latitude regions are the places where the deep water of the world's oceans is renewed. Year-round access to the dynamic Arctic Ocean, Southern Ocean, and surrounding seas, where sea-ice, atmosphere and ocean exchange freshwater and heat, will enable researchers to better understand the fundamental drivers of deeper water formation. Both modeling and observations point to causal relationships between the cycling of freshwater in high latitudes, ice dynamics, and global ocean circulation patterns all of which drive our weather patterns and condition global climate.

  • Understanding polar ice sheet contributions to the trajectory of future sea level rise Data that is largely satellite based suggest that loss of ice from the polar ice sheets accounts for about one third of the current rate of sea level rise; that contribution is increasing and may well accelerate the rate of sea level rise in the coming decades and century. Access to dynamic areas of the Antarctic and Greenland continental ice sheet margins and grounding zones, where heat provided by the oceans is causing substantial melting, is needed to determine the nature of the processes influencing melting rates. Only with direct observations can conceptual models be developed that will allow projections of future sea level rise.

  • Paleoclimatic evolution of Antarctica and the Arctic The ability to acquire seafloor rock and sediment samples from high latitude areas adjacent to, and below, perennial ice provides researchers with the samples needed to better understand the paleoclimatic history of the polar regions. Polar conditions are proving to be more essential for depicting Earth's past climate state as their role in driving climate change has become better appreciated. Well-described configurations of global conditions at key junctures in the past are needed to test and develop better confidence the capabilities of coupled climate models, which can then be used to improve predictions of future climate change.

  • Ecosystem dynamics in a changing polar environment The polar oceans are displaying dramatic changes in heat, freshwater and sea ice regimes. In the Arctic, this is evident as decreasing sea ice cover and the warming of certain seawater layers to temperatures unprecedented in 100 years of observations. In the Southern Ocean, these changes are manifest around the Antarctic Peninsula as the areal extent and seasonal duration of sea ice cover has been decreasing while the region has witnessed among the largest increases in annual average atmospheric temperatures on the planet over the past 50 years (up to 5 deg F). In addition, warm circumpolar deep waters are making their way further up on to the narrow shelves all around the Antarctic continent. Ocean acidification and fishing pressures are also on the rise in higher latitudes. At the same time, significant changes in species compositions are being documented both north and south. Interdisciplinary ocean going studies on a modern vessel are needed to achieve a process-based understanding of the effects of multiple stressors on the valuable and unique polar ecosystems. Such fundamental understanding is urgently needed to devise and inform ecosystem-based management objectives.

  • Ocean acidification and its impacts The need for understanding the potential adverse impacts of a slowly acidifying sea upon marine ecosystems is widely recognized and included as a priority objective in the new National Ocean Policy. In fact, acidification in polar oceans, where it is expected to occur first and foremost, appears to be ahead of model predictions. The effects of ocean acidification could significantly affect strategies for developing practices towards the sustainability of ocean resources. Basic research concerning the nature, extent and impact of ocean acidification on polar oceanic environments in the past, present and future is particularly urgent with the changes upon us.

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