Scientific research, and operational support of that research, are the principal activities supported by the United States Government in Antarctica. The goals are to expand fundamental knowledge of the region, to foster research on global and regional problems of current scientific importance, and to utilize the region as a platform or base from which to support research. The U.S. Antarctic Program supports only that research that can be done exclusively in Antarctica or that can be done best from Antarctica.

In the U.S. Antarctic Program, three year-round research stations, additional research facilities and camps, airplanes, helicopters, various types of surface vehicles, and ships support approximately 130 research projects each year at numerous locations throughout the continent and its surrounding oceans. The research is performed by investigators from universities and, to a lesser extent, from federal agencies and other organizations.

The program has been in continuous operation since the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year. U.S. activities in Antarctica support the Nation's adherence to the Antarctic Treaty, which reserves the region for peaceful purposes and encourages international cooperation in scientific research. At present, 43 nations adhere to the treaty, and about 27 of them participate in antarctic field activities.

The National Science Foundation funds and manages the U.S. Antarctic Program. NSF antarctic funding in fiscal 1995 was as follows:

Awards to institutions for research     $ 29,060,000
Direct support of research projects       42,070,000
Operational support                      124,700,000
Total, U.S. Antarctic Program           $195,830,000

The Foundation supports antarctic research in these areas:

Aeronomy and astrophysics

The polar regions have been called Earth's window to outer space. This term originally applied to study of aurora and other phenomena related to interaction of solar plasmas and fields. In this context the polar upper atmosphere is a screen on which the results of such interactions can be viewed and through which other evidence of space physics processes can pass. Today, this concept of Earth's polar atmosphere as a window includes research in other fields as well. With discovery of polar stratospheric ozone depletions, a window previously thought 'closed' (the ultraviolet window) is now known to 'open' in certain seasons. In astronomy and astrophysics, favorable atmospheric conditions and the unique location of the South Pole enable scientists to use this window to probe the structure of the Sun and the universe with unprecedented precision.

The aeronomy and astrophysics program supports studies of three regions:

Major goals are to sponsor research that requires or would benefit from the unique conditions of the Antarctic, to contribute to understanding of the role of the Antarctic in global environmental change, to participate in interdisciplinary studies of geosphere-biosphere interactions in the middle and upper atmosphere, and to improve understanding of the coupling of the Earth's polar atmosphere with the magnetosphere and of the ways in which both are affected by solar activity.

Biology and medical research

The goal of antarctic biology and medical research is to improve understanding of life phenomena and processes. The program supports projects directed at all levels of organization from molecular, cellular, and organismal to communities, ecosystems, and global processes. Investigators should apply recent theory and technology to understanding how organisms, including humans, adapt and live in high latitude environments and how ecosystems may respond to global change. Support is focused on these areas:

Geology and geophysics

Antarctica represents about 9 percent of Earth's continental crust and has been in a near-polar position for more than 100 million years. It is covered by a continental ice sheet with an average thickness of 3 km. There is unequivocal evidence that for a long period after the continent arrived at its high-latitude position, extensive continental ice sheets did not exist there. The ice sheets, through their interaction with and effect on oceanic and atmospheric circulation, play a key role in modulating global climate.

Some important program goals include:

All of these problems involve the need for an improved understanding of where, when, and how Antarctica and its surrounding ocean basins were accommodated in the interplate movements inferred from studies of global plate kinematics. In short, the program encourages investigation of the relationships between the geological evolution of the antarctic plate and paleocirculation, paleoclimate, and the evolution of high-latitude biota.

In geophysics, the continent and its environs have a central role in the geodynamic processes that have shaped the present global environment. The tectonic role of the antarctic continent in the breakup of Gondwanaland, the close interaction of the antarctic crust and ice sheet with their attendant effects on the planet's fluid systems, and Antarctica's presentday seismically quiescent role defines the important thrusts of geophysical research in the high southern latitudes. Modern geophysical and logistical technology might focus on three broad 'transect zones,' across the Weddell and Ross embayments and in the area of the Amery Ice Shelf, where prospects for broad-scale understanding of the region are highest.

Ocean and climate systems

Antarctic oceanic and tropospheric studies focus on the structure and processes of the ocean-atmosphere environment and their relationships with the global ocean, the atmosphere, and the marine biosphere. As part of the global heat engine, the Antarctic has a major role in the world's transfer of energy. Its ocean/atmosphere system is known to be both an indicator and a component of climate change.

Research sponsored by the ocean and climate systems program is intended to improve understanding of the oceanic environment at high latitudes, including global exchange of heat, salt, water, and trace elements, sea-ice dynamics, and tropospheric chemistry and dynamics. Major program elements include:


Snow and ice are pervasive elements of high latitude environmental systems and have an active role in the global environment. The glaciology program is concerned with the study of the history and dynamics of all naturally occurring forms of snow and ice, including floating ice, seasonal snow, glaciers, and continental and marine ice sheets. Program emphases include paleoenvironments from ice cores, ice dynamics, numerical modeling, glacial geology, and remote sensing of ice sheets. Some specific objectives are:

The Polar Ice Coring Office (PICO) is supported by the Office of Polar Programs to service the technological requirements of glaciologists. PICO focuses on ice drill development for NSF-supported remote field projects. Investigators who plan to request technical support from PICO should include with their proposal a cost estimate (budget and justification) for the equipment or drilling support that might be provided by PICO if the project is funded. This information is in addition to the regular budgets included with the proposal. Investigators should contact PICO if they have questions or need further information for a correct cost estimate. The Glaciology Program Manager (see roster) should be notified when an investigator is requesting PICO support.

Environmental research

This program supports scientific research that can help reduce the environmental impact of NSF's activities in Antarctica. Areas of inquiry might include policy research, effects of past practices, materials and waste management, current impacts, resilience of ecosystems, and promising technologies.

Proposals will be considered from basic and applied research disciplines in any field of science, mathematics, or engineering normally supported by NSF at academic institutions, Federal agencies, and the private sector.

A program announcement is available from the Antarctic Science Section (see roster).


Supporting complex, state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary research in the Earth's most remote and hostile region is a challenge met increasingly by instrumentation. Off-the-shelf instruments, highly capable computers, and support for the development of new instruments are requested frequently in research proposals.

Some existing instruments are well-suited for polar regions; they can gather data year-round at low operational cost. Use of these instruments can reduce the number of people required to make measurements and even increase the reliability of the collected data. Unattended instruments for collection and analysis of data are essential in Antarctica, where the extreme environment, great distances, and logistics constraints limit the spatial and temporal extent of coverage.

Instrumentation development and support will be considered for funding in such areas as these:

  1. Acquiring new research equipment or modernizing existing equipment.
  2. Developing instruments or techniques that extend research capabilities from making full-scale tests of new instruments or technologies to modifying existing systems. These are typically multiyear projects in which observational parameters, data types, and feasibility of implementing a technology have been demonstrated.
  3. Supporting research technicians.
  4. Doing demonstration or feasibility projects to test an idea for enhancing existing instrumentation; the projects should have achievable goals within a finite time.
  5. Developing new or enhanced remote sensing techniques. Partnerships with engineering faculty in collaborative projects are strongly encouraged.

Integration of technique development with scientific applications should be described carefully; examples include sensor technology, e/m wave propagation and scattering, modeling, data handling, and advanced computational strategies and algorithm development.

Submit instrumentation proposals to the disciplinary program area in which the instrumentation will be used.

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