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Fall 2011 Vol. 11 Number 2

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Photo by Kristina “Kricket” Scheerer/National Science Foundation, courtesy U.S. Antarctic Program Under the Ice

Research in One of the World’s Last Frontiers

Antarctica’s icy landscapes may seem harsh and distant, but the region is a porthole into the changes taking place in the global climate system and may be a litmus test of changes to come in ecosystems everywhere.

In particular, Antarctica holds promise for scientific discovery. While conducting research in severe conditions is challenging, recent findings have uncovered enormous lakes and mountain ranges buried beneath the ice and entire ecosystems of never-before-seen life forms. Antarctica’s ice and sediment records may well provide clues about Earth’s history, genetic secrets to surviving in extreme environments, and an unparalleled platform for observing the solar system and the universe, including space weather such as solar storms.

The National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program holds primary responsibility for supporting U.S. research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. A recent report from the National Research Council identifies eight questions that could drive the program over the next two decades and points to opportunities to sustain and leverage the program.

One of the questions is how Antarctica’s massive ice sheet will contribute to changes in global sea level. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s ice and fresh water lies within these ice sheets. A warming climate could lead to increased melting, and if all of this ice melted, global sea levels would rise by more than 60 meters. Scientists need to examine if the ice loss will accelerate and how quickly sea level will rise, the report says. Other questions explore the past role the area has played in changing the planet; how has life adapted to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean environments; and how the universe began, what is it made of, and what determines its evolution.

To sustain and improve the U.S. Antarctic Program, the report calls for collaboration among nations, advances in energy and technology to make research more cost-effective, education efforts to spark interest in polar science, a network of observing systems that can collect and record ongoing data, and improvements in scientific models to strengthen the simulation and prediction of future global climate patterns.

Preserving the unique environment of the Antarctic for new observations and experimental science requires continued commitment to stewardship, the report says. The next 20 years of research in the region has the potential to advance understanding of Earth and beyond, and a robust and efficient program is needed to realize this potential.   -- Jennifer Walsh

Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Committee on Future Science Opportunities in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2011, 230 pp.; ISBN 0-309-21469-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $50.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Warren Zapol, emeritus anesthetist in chief at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Reginald Jenney Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Mass. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences