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Office of Polar Programs
Antarctic Sciences

United States Antarctic Program

The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) in the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) encompasses U.S. Government-sponsored activities in the region roughly south of 60°south latitude. NSF funds and manages this national program, which centers on scientific research and includes operational support provided by contractors and the military. The program supports the range of U.S. Antarctic interests including adherence to the Antarctic Treaty.

Research supported by the program has two thrusts:

  1. to understand the Earth and its systems, with emphasis on Antarctica’s (and the Southern Ocean’s) influence on and response to these systems; and
  2. to utilize Antarctica as a research site by supporting studies made possible by the region’s unusual and extreme conditions.

The program supports research that is best carried out in the Antarctic or that can be carried out only in the Antarctic. Research and education proposals that will not require fieldwork, or proposals that will require the use of samples already in U.S. depositories, are also welcome.

Non-United States Facilities—International Cooperation

NSF encourages scientists from the United States to participate in cooperative research programs and activities sponsored by or involving other Antarctic Treaty nations. Scientists interested in submitting a proposal for such a program are strongly encouraged to contact an OPP program manager first, to allow NSF time to coordinate the operational support needs with the other participating country or countries.


In addition to the categories stated in the section “Eligibility Requirements,” other federal agencies may coordinate their research needs within the framework of NSF-supported Antarctic logistics.

Persons selected to work in the Antarctic must pass physical and dental examinations whose standards are specified by USAP. Prospective winterers must pass a psychological examination as well.

Defining Operational Needs

If a proposed project involves fieldwork, the proposer must also include the "Operational Requirements Worksheets" ( in portable document file (pdf) format in their FastLane proposal. Proposals submitted without a "pdf" file of these worksheets will be considered incomplete. The worksheets must be completed by the first Wednesday in June of the year preceding the fieldwork. For example, a proposal received on 2 June 2004 normally will be considered for projects involving fieldwork that will take place in the Antarctic beginning in the 2005–2006 austral summer.

Instructions on how to submit the worksheets are available in the Antarctic Research program announcement ( Funding programs offered by areas of NSF other than the Office of Polar Programs, may have different deadlines or target dates. However, the Operational Requirements Worksheets must still be completed by the same deadline (first Wednesday in June) as proposals submitted to the Office of Polar Programs. Be sure and include copies of the worksheets in the FastLane proposal to NSF, as instructed in the Antarctic Research program announcement.

For multiyear proposals, include the worksheets in the original proposal to NSF, even if fieldwork is proposed for a later year.

Antarctic Sciences

The Office of Polar Programs funds Antarctic research through these programs:

1. Antarctic Aeronomy and Astrophysics

  • Aeronomy and Space Physics—Supports unique studies of Earth’s ionosphere, magnetosphere, and solar-terrestrial of relationships. Year-round station-based research is possible in Antarctica because of its physically stable location at high geomagnetic latitudes, which range from 53°S at Palmer Station to 79°S at McMurdo Station. Automatic platforms provide year-round support for low-powered autonomous instruments at sites on the ice sheet. Research objectives include improving understanding of Earth's upper atmosphere and near-space environment; investigating coupling between the magnetosphere and ionosphere, and investigating solar-terrestrial effects on neutral atmosphere.
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics—Because of its location at the Earth’s spin axis on the 2.8-kilometer-thick East Antarctic Ice Sheet, South Pole Station is well situated for long, continuous astronomical and astrophysical observations. The high elevation of the station (2,835 meters), dry atmosphere, extremely low air turbulence and temperature, isolation from radio noise, and long periods of clear weather provide superior observing astronomical conditions. In addition, a crystal-clear (at depths 1.5 - 2.5 km) ice allows almost ideal detection of Cherenkov’s emission caused propagating cosmic neutrinos.
  • Long-Duration Ballooning—In cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NSF has developed the capability to launch balloon science payloads from McMurdo Station. These payloads may weigh more than a ton and can reach altitudes of approximately 40 kilometers. The balloons then circle once or twice over the Antarctic during a 10- to 30-day period. This capability can be used by several disciplines and may serve as a low-cost substitute for space flights.

2. Antarctic Biology and Medicine

  • Marine Biology/Biological Oceanography—The oceans around Antarctica make up one of the world’s more productive marine regions. Research objectives are to understand the structure and function of the Antarctic marine ecosystems; to determine the adaptations of organisms; and to acquire more knowledge of their distribution, abundance, and dynamics. The focus is on ship- and shore-based studies that stress trophodynamics, including detailed investigations at all trophic levels. Topics of interest include interdisciplinary studies of carbon and nutrient cycling, krill, ice-edge ecosystems, and low-temperature adaptations.
  • Medical Research—Biomedical studies can be directed toward physiological and psychological attributes and adaptations of people in small, isolated groups.
  • Terrestrial and Freshwater Biology—Biota of terrestrial and freshwater Antarctica, and particularly their adaptation to the extreme environment, are of interest. The simplicity of these ecosystems provides opportunities for analysis that is more difficult and sometimes impossible in the complex systems of the lower latitudes. The primary research objective is to understand the effects of the physical environment on the biota and adaptations of organisms, and to gain further knowledge of their distribution, abundance, and dynamics.

3. Antarctic Geology and Geophysics

  • Marine Geology and Geophysics—The seafloor around Antarctica is complex and presents fundamental problems in marine geology and geophysics. Its sediments provide detailed records of change over time in the size of the Antarctic ice sheet, as well as clues to other geological and tectonic processes that have affected the continent. Research objectives are to interpret geological and glacial history and to understand geological processes from studies of the continental margins and the adjacent oceanic crust.
  • Terrestrial Geology and Geophysics—Antarctica represents about 9 percent of the Earth’s continental crust and has been in a near-polar position for more than 100 million years. Reconnaissance has increased understanding of the geology of the continent and has provided evidence in support of plate tectonics models and the Gondwana supercontinent. Focused projects now contribute to solving regionally and globally significant geologic problems such as geophysical investigations of the sub-ice bedrock. Objectives are to explain the geology and the geological evolution of Antarctica; to understand the relationship of Antarctica to global geodynamic systems; and to exploit unique aspects of Antarctica to address fundamental problems in geology and geophysics.

4. Antarctic Glaciology

The world’s largest ice sheet covers 98 percent of the Antarctic continent and is up to 4.8 kilometers thick, comprising 90 percent of the world’s ice and storing information about climate and atmospheric constituents and their variation over time. Objectives of this program are 1) to determine the dynamics of the ice sheet; 2) to understand the climatic record stored in the layers of firn and ice; 3) to determine the history of glacial advance and retreat through the study of glacial/geologic deposits; and 4) to determine the present dynamic status of the ice sheet and its relationship to glacial and climatic history.

5. Antarctic Ocean and Climate Systems

  • Atmospheric Sciences—Antarctica interacts strongly with regional and global weather and climate. Far removed from pollution sources, it is an important monitoring and research area for world background levels of natural and anthropogenic atmospheric constituents. Conditions in Antarctica reflect global atmospheric changes on many scales. Research objectives are to improve understanding of the physical processes of the atmosphere; determine the relationship between events and conditions in the Antarctic atmosphere and global events; and assess the region’s role in past and present global climate.
  • Physical and Chemical Oceanography—The Southern Ocean has a central role in world ocean circulation. Large-scale heat exchange and ice formation at the ocean surface overturn the water column and mix trace constituents, making the Southern Ocean the site of global-scale deep-ocean ventilation and one of two primary sources (the other being the Arctic) of the world’s intermediate and deep-water masses. Huge annual changes in the extent of sea ice—between 4 and 20 million square kilometers—also influence energy transfer. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current—the world’s largest ocean current—has a primary role in ocean circulation. Research objectives are to determine the dynamics of formation and distribution of water masses, currents, and sea ice; investigate the relationships among oceanic and atmospheric circulation systems and the physical bases for biotic productivity; and investigate interactions between the Southern Ocean and climate processes.

6. Antarctic Operational Support

The U.S. Antarctic Program provides operational and laboratory support in Antarctica. Operational support includes the following: a year-round inland research station at the South Pole (90°S.); two year-round coastal research stations with extensive laboratory and computing capabilities—one at McMurdo Station (78°S.) on Ross Island and one at Palmer Station (64°S.) on Anvers Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region; summer field camps for research, as required; the ice-capable research ship Laurence M. Gould, 70.1 meters in length; the icebreaking research ship Nathaniel B. Palmer, 94 meters in length; ski-equipped LC-130 airplanes (for heavy-lift transport); other airplanes; helicopters; a Coast Guard icebreaker for channel breaking at McMurdo as well as research support; over-snow vehicles; and automated, unmanned weather and geophysical observatories. Occasionally, vessels from the U.S. academic fleet and from the Ocean Drilling Program support Antarctic research. NSF-supported research by U.S. scientists also can be carried out as an international collaboration with other national antarctic programs and aboard non-U.S. research ships.

For instructions on how to request Antarctic operational support in a proposal, see the Antarctic Research program announcement (NSF 03-551).

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