Expert Report

Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (2011)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Although the icy landscape of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean may seem distant, scientific research in this region can yield insights on changes that are important to the entire planet. The Antarctic region also holds the promise of novel discovery: ice and sediment records hold clues to Earth’s history, the region’s living organisms may hold genetic secrets to surviving in extreme environments, and the Antarctic plateau offers an unparalleled platform for observing the solar system and the Universe beyond. Looking out over the next couple of decades, this report identifies key questions that will drive scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and presents opportunities to be leveraged to sustain and improve the science program. The development of a large-scale observing network and a new generation of models has the potential to expand scientific understanding and ensure the continuing success of research in the Antarctic region.

Online presentation by members of the committee.

Key Messages

  • The Antarctic region is both an important influence on Earth’s processes and a unique environment from which to monitor global changes. In this report, the Committee highlighted several areas of scientific research in the Antarctic region that will be important over the next two decades. These include work to better understand changes in the ice sheets of Antarctica that can contribute to global sea level rise, the contributions of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to the global climate system, the response of Antarctic biota and ecosystems to change, and the role of Antarctica in past change.
  • Antarctica and the Southern Ocean provide a natural laboratory for scientific discovery. The Committee highlighted several areas that will be important in discovery-driven scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next two decades. These include understanding what records preserved in the Antarctic region reveal about past and future climate, learning how life adapted to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean environments, using the Antarctic platform to reveal interactions between the Earth and the space environment, and answering fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of the Universe.
  • Conducting research in the harsh environmental conditions of the Antarctic region is logistically challenging. Substantial resources are needed to establish and maintain infrastructure while at the same time minimizing the pollution of the environment and ensuring the safety of researchers. The Committee identified several opportunities that could be leveraged to sustain and improve the science program in Antarctica and Southern Ocean in the coming two decades. These include:
    -Building collaborations between nations, across disciplinary boundaries, and between public and private sector entities, and between science and logistics personnel
    -Taking advantage of advances in energy and technology can make scientific research in the Antarctic region more efficient
    -Supporting educational efforts to spark interest in polar science
    -Developing a coordinated network of observing systems that can collect and record data on the ongoing changes in the Antarctic region. Improvements in the collection, management, archiving, and exchange of information will allow data to be used for multiple purposes by a variety of stakeholders. Improving scientific models will allow for better synthesis and understanding of the observations. 4
  • The Committee suggested specific actions that would help the United States achieve success in the next generation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean science. These include:
    -Lead the development of a large-scale, interdisciplinary observing network and support a new generation of robust earth system models
    -Continue to support a wide variety of basic research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to yield a new generation of discoveries
    -Design and implement improved mechanisms for international collaboration
    -Exploit the host of emerging technologies including cyberinfrastructure and novel and robust sensors
    -Coordinate an integrated polar educational program
    -Continue strong logistical support for Antarctic science. The Committee encourages the National Science Foundation-led Blue Ribbon Panel to develop a plan to support Antarctic science in the next two decades that includes the following goals:
    -Improve the efficiency of the support provided by the contractors and enhance the oversight and management of contractors by the scientific community
    -Increase the flexibility and mobility of the support system to work in a continent- and ocean-wide manner, utilizing as much of the year and continent as possible, and fostering innovative “cutting-edge” science
    -Maintain and enhance the unique logistical assets of the U.S., including the research stations, aircraft, and research vessels and icebreakers.