U.S. ANTARCTIC PROGRAM
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
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:
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
The aeronomy and astrophysics program supports studies of three
- the stratosphere and the mesosphere. Current research focuses on stratospheric chemistry and aerosols, particularly in the context of the ozone hole. The polar stratosphere is expected to be a field of continued interest and growth.
- the thermosphere, the ionosphere, and the magnetosphere. These regions derive many of their characteristics from the interplay of ionized plasmas and energetic charged particles with geomagnetic and geoelectric fields. The upper atmosphere,
particularly the ionospheric portion of it, is the ultimate sink of solar wind energy that is transported into the magnetosphere. Energy dissipates in the ionosphere because of particle precipitation, which is the result in part of resonant
wave-particle interactions, and because of the Joule heating that is a result of currents driven by electric fields.
- astronomy and astrophysical studies of the regions of the universe outside the magnetosphere, including solar astronomy and cosmic ray physics. Astrophysical studies are primarily conducted at the South Pole station or on long-duration balloon
flights launched from McMurdo.
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.
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:
- Marine ecosystem dynamics. Understanding the natural variability of marine ecosystems is the goal. An important direction is toward correlating the structure and function of the marginal ice-zone ecosystem with oceanic and atmospheric
processes. Of particular interest is the influence of nutrient limitations on primary production and the role of marine phytoplankton in carbon dioxide cycling. Proposals to develop data collection technologies such as satellite remote sensing are
- Terrestrial and limnetic ecosystems. Organisms in ice-free areas and in perennially ice-covered lakes show remarkable adaptations. The presence of relatively few species eases study of ecosystem dynamics and interpretation of experiments.
Research is needed on adaptive mechanisms and evolutionary processes. Studies that include molecular biological approaches are encouraged. The McMurdo Dry Valleys of southern Victoria Land are of particular interest.
- Population biology and physiological ecology. Research is supported in population dynamics, especially metabolic, physiological, and behavioral adaptations of krill and other zooplankton and fish species. Marine mammals and birds have been the
object of much research and merit further attention in some areas. Mechanisms necessary for maintenance of cell function in fishes and their feeding behavior are important topics. Long-term observations are needed to improve understanding of
manmade or natural changes.
- Adaptation. The extremes of light, temperature, and moisture have resulted in unusual adaptations. Research topics include low temperature photosynthesis and respiration, enzymatic adaptations, adaptive strategies such as development of
antifreeze compounds and modifications to circulation systems, and the response of organisms to increased UV-B from the ozone hole. Biotechnology offers unique approaches to addressing questions involving adaptation, and such applications are of
- Human behavior and medical research. Antarctica's extreme climate can induce social, psychological, and physiological stresses, particularly during the winter isolation, which can exceed 8 months. Research has applications to human health and
performance both in the Antarctic and in other isolated environments such as spacecraft. Studies can focus on topics such as epidemiology, thermal regulation, immune system function, individual behavior, and group dynamics.
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
Some important program goals include:
- determining the tectonic evolution of Antarctica and its relationship to the evolution of the continents from Precambrian time to the present
- determining Antarctica's crustal structure
- determining the effect of the dispersal of antarctic continental fragments on the paleocirculation of the world oceans, on the evolution of life, and on global paleoclimates and present climate
- reconstructing a more detailed history of the ice sheets, identifying geological controls to ice sheet behavior, and defining geological responses to the ice sheets on regional and global scales
- determining the evolution of sedimentary basins within the continent and along continental margins
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
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
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:
- Physical oceanography, concerned with understanding the dynamics and kinematics of the polar oceans, the effects of interface driving forces such as wind, solar radiation, and heat exchange, water mass production and modification processes, ocean
dynamics at the pack ice edge, and the effect of polynyas on ventilation.
- Chemical oceanography, concerned with chemical composition of sea water and its global speciation, reactions among chemical elements and compounds in the ocean, fluxes of material within ocean basins and at their boundaries, and the use of
chemical tracers to study time and space scales of oceanic processes.
- Sea ice dynamics, including study of the material characteristics of sea ice down to the individual crystal level and the large-scale patterns of freezing, deformation, and melting. These processes have implications for both atmospheric and
oceanic 'climates.' Advances in instrumentation, including remote sensing or telemetering of ice type, thickness, motion, and growth, should enable large scale dynamics of sea ice to be monitored over long periods.
- Meteorology, concerned with atmospheric circulation systems and dynamics. Research areas include the energy budget; atmospheric chemistry; transport of atmospheric contaminants to the Antarctic; and the role of large and mesoscale systems in
global exchange of heat, momentum, and trace constituents.
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:
- Correlation of climatic fluctuations evident in antarctic ice cores with data from arctic and lower-latitude ice cores, and integration of the ice record with the terrestrial and marine record.
- Documentation of the geographic extent of climatic events noted in paleoclimatic records; and the extension of the ice core time series to provide information on astronomical forcing of climate.
- Establishment of more precise dating methodologies for deep ice cores.
- Determination of the Cenozoic history of antarctic ice sheets and their interaction with global climate and uplift of the Transantarctic Mountains; response of the antarctic ice sheets to the Pliocene warming.
- Investigation of the physics of fast glacier flow with emphasis on processes at glacier beds.
- Investigation of ice-shelf stability.
- Identification and quantification of the feedback between ice dynamics and climate change.
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.
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
Instrumentation development and support will be considered for
funding in such areas as these:
- Acquiring new research equipment or modernizing existing equipment.
- 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.
- Supporting research technicians.
- Doing demonstration or feasibility projects to test an idea
for enhancing existing instrumentation; the projects should have
achievable goals within a finite time.
- Developing new or enhanced remote sensing techniques. Partnerships
with engineering faculty in collaborative projects are strongly
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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