Fall/Winter 2015 Vol. 15 Number 2

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Research vessel Laurence M. Gould, NSF photo by Bob DeValentino, courtesy U.S. Antarctic Program

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

Top Research Goals for
NSF's Antarctic Program

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean regions provide an immense natural laboratory for studying scientific questions in many areas, ranging from oceanography to tectonics, glaciology to atmospheric chemistry, and microbiology to astrophysics. Given the almost limitless research opportunities the Antarctic region offers, an Academies report presents a strategic vision to guide research investments in the U.S. Antarctic Program at the National Science Foundation over the next 10 years.

The top research priority, the report says, is to better understand the scope and pace of melting Antarctic ice sheets, which could have huge impacts on sea-level rise across the globe. The report proposes a Changing Antarctic Ice Sheets Initiative, which includes a multidisciplinary campaign Ice core drilling operations, NSF photo by Melanie Conner, courtesy U.S. Antarctic Programto study the complex climatic, oceanic, and atmospheric interactions and fluctuations in key zones of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and a new generation of ice and sediment core studies to improve understanding of past episodes of rapid ice-sheet collapse.

For millions of years, Antarctic ecosystems have evolved to adapt to extreme conditions and changes in this region. A second research priority is decoding the genomes of organisms in these ecosystems to better understand both their adaptability and vulnerability to environmental changes, including contemporary issues like ocean acidification, invasive species, and climate change.

Despite the variability of the region's ice sheets and ecosystems, the dry, stable atmosphere above Antarctica is an ideal backdrop for astrophysical observations, including studies of cosmic microwave background radiation. A next-generation CMB telescope installation, recommended as the third research priority, would provide potential new insights about the origins and nature of the universe.

To help advance these research priorities, NSF should expand access to remote field sites and expedite the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker ship and an ice-capable polar research vessel. Further, it must strategically augment existing observational networks, improve field-based communications and information technology for data transmission, and facilitate more open and organized data management. NSF should also continue to support a broad spectrum of research in response to proposals from the scientific community.

These recommendations result from extensive engagement with the scientific community by the study committee that wrote the report. The selected research priorities were based on criteria that included compelling science, potential for social impact, time-sensitivity, feasibility, and key areas for U.S. and NSF leadership. It also took into consideration possibilities for interagency and international partnerships, impacts on the program's balance, and the potential to bridge disciplinary divides.

-- Emily Raschke & Lauren Rugani

A Strategic Vision for NSF Investments in Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research. Committee on the Development of a Strategic Vision for the U.S. Antarctic Program, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2015, 154 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-37367-8; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $60.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Robin E. Bell, Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University, and Robert A. Weller, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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