Executive Summary

Introduction: Antarctica, with 10% of Earth's land mass, is nearly 1.5 times the size of the United States. Its associated seas represent nearly 6% of the world's oceans and its ice, 70% of the Earth's fresh water. The United States has important foreign policy, national security, scientific, and environmental interests in this vast area. A strong year-round presence in Antarctica, in the form of cutting-edge scientific research supported by infrastructure at three research stations, is the principal means of realizing these interests. The Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole is of particular importance in this regard, but its buildings and associated life-support systems are nearing the end of their design life and are in need of replacement. The estimated cost of replacement is substantial, and this, combined with current and anticipated budget constraints, raises important issues concerning the U.S. Antarctic Program, or USAP. In particular, the Senate Appropriations Committee expressed concern over the costs of the USAP, questioned whether the existing policy to maintain a presence in Antarctica is still valid, and called for the National Science and Technology Council to undertake a Government-wide review of that policy and to examine options that can reduce the annual operating cost. This document reports the results of that review.

Policy Issues: The United States has important foreign policy and national security interests in Antarctica. These interests are given concrete expression through the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The Treaty guarantees freedom of scientific research in Antarctica and prohibits military and nuclear activities there. Further, it includes imaginative juridical and decision-making provisions that defuse potentially explosive disputes over sovereignty in Antarctica among its Parties.

The international peace and political stability in the area resulting from operation of the Treaty are themselves important policy objectives of the United States. Moreover, the Treaty is the indispensable basis for successful pursuit by the United States of the unique opportunities Antarctica offers for scientific research, as well as associated goals of protecting the pristine environment of Antarctica and conserving its resources.

The success of the Antarctic Treaty and the achievement of U.S. Antarctic interests are the direct result of the active and influential U.S. presence in Antarctica maintained by the United States Antarctic Program. This year-round presence protects the U.S. position on sovereignty in Antarctica and accords us a decisive role in the Treaty's activities-based decision system, both of which are essential to maintaining the political and legal balance that makes the Treaty work. Thus, from a policy perspective the NSTC finds that maintaining an active and influential presence in Antarctica, including year-round operation of South Pole Station, is essential to U.S. interests.

The U.S. Antarctic Program: U.S. activities in Antarctica, the region south of 60 degrees south latitude, are managed in a single integrated program - the USAP - that adheres to the principles of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. Overall program responsibility for these activities was transferred to the National Science Foundation in 1970, as formalized in National Security Council Memorandum 71, and in 1976 NSF was assigned responsibility for single-point management of the entire program. In 1982 the President reaffirmed in PM6646 the national policy underlying the USAP and directed that the Program be maintained at a level providing an active and influential presence in Antarctica, including year-round occupation of South Pole Station and two coastal stations. At present, NSF budgets $196 million annually to provide the infrastructure and operational support required for research in Antarctica and to fund a broad spectrum of scientific activity on the continent and surrounding oceans. The Program operates three strategically located research stations on the continent, as directed by the 1982 Presidential Order, as well as two research vessels employed in studies of the surrounding oceans and ocean floors. The ships also provide logistic support for Palmer Station. The NSTC review found that the National Science Foundation has implemented U.S. policy in an effective manner, especially by substantially improving environmental stewardship, by broadening the science program, and by privatizing some operational elements of the Program to reduce costs.

USAP Research has three principal thrusts: Understanding the Earth and its large-scale systems, with particular emphasis on probing Antarctica's influence on these systems; research for which Antarctica is an ideal platform, such as studies of the universe made possible by the unique conditions for astronomy at South Pole Station; and exploration of the geographical frontier. Of immediate relevance is the research investigating changes to the global environment and the potential consequences of these changes. Each of the three stations (McMurdo, Palmer, and Amundsen-Scott at the South Pole) and two research vessels provides unique research opportunities needed for major advances in many fields of science. At present, U.S. scientists from 26 different states are engaged in the Program. The NSTC finds the USAP research program to be of very high quality and of great interest to a broad scientific community.

Budget and Support Issues: As a government-wide program, the role of the USAP expenditure should be judged against the Federal research portfolio. The current annual investment in the USAP is less than one percent of the total federal investment in basic and applied research. This level provides for substantial progress in the three major scientific directions noted above as well as a cost effective scientific return to our total investment. About 60% of the USAP funds provides the U.S. presence and logistic support needed to operate the science program in the uniquely challenging Antarctic environment. This logistic support also provides the necessary infrastructure for all federal agencies carrying out research in Antarctica. The NSTC believes that, at the current level of investment, the USAP is cost effective in advancing American scientific and geopolitical objectives and, from a science perspective, supports the continuation of three stations with year-round presence.

The NSTC recognizes that maintaining the high scientific value of the program in the face of budgetary uncertainties places a high premium on detailed understanding of options for cost reductions. This report describes anticipated savings from further management efficiencies and discusses possible program retrenchments and the associated scientific losses. A specially constituted external panel should be established. This panel should be free to examine a full range of infrastructure, management, and scientific options, including reductions in scope commensurate with a range of budgetary scenarios. A 5- to 7-year freeze in total USAP funding (including South Pole Station construction) is one of the options to be analyzed by this panel. Timely input to the budget process, starting with the FY98 budget, is highly desirable. The NSTC recommends that an external panel be convened by NSF to explore options for sustaining the high level of USAP science activity under realistic constrained funding levels.

South Pole Station: The NSTC reaffirmation of U.S. policy, including the need for a continuing U.S. presence at the South Pole, implies that by the time the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole reaches the end of its useful life, it will need to have been rebuilt or replaced. NSF has been planning for the South Pole Station for some time. In the new budget environment, the plans will benefit greatly from further cost-benefit analyses that examine the trade-offs between the size, lifetime, and capability of the station vs. the anticipated requirements of the science program. It is essential that the cost savings arising from alternative management approaches, remote operation, robotics, and international cost-sharing be explicitly considered. Meanwhile, the USAP should give highest priority to correcting critical health, safety, and environmental issues at the current station.

Conclusion: Essential elements of U.S. national and scientific interests are well-served by continued involvement in scientific activity in the Antarctic as carried out by the USAP. The policies laid out in the 1982 Presidential Memorandum 6646 regarding "an active and influential presence in Antarctica," which "shall include the conduct of scientific activities in major disciplines [and] year-round occupation at the South Pole and two coastal stations," continue to be appropriate at the current funding level. The influential presence of the U. S. in Antarctica helps maintain the existing state of international peace and stability on the continent. The science carried out in Antarctica is of great general interest and provides unique and crucial information in several disciplines. The NSTC concludes that present U.S. policy and practice with respect to the USAP are well-justified. Continued substantial progress in management efficiency will be needed to sustain the high level of scientific activity within the anticipated budgetary constraints.

Return to Table of Contents