Washington, D.C. – The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today held a hearing to review the future options and logistical recommendations of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) Blue Ribbon Panel Report, More and Better Science in Antarctica through Increased Logistical Effectiveness, and to examine the work and goals of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

“Our support of explorers and scientists on Antarctica has yielded and continues to yield valuable research that not only affects our daily lives, but cannot be done in any other place on earth” said Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX).  Noting that much remains to be learned about the continent, Hall continued, “Unfortunately, the magnitude of the logistics to support these activities is enormous and overwhelmingly dominates the budget for Antarctic activities.  Therefore, the Blue Ribbon Panel’s report recommendations are welcome.”

Hall continued, “I also recognize the important geopolitical reasons to maintain a U.S. presence there and appreciate the cooperation that must take place not only between relevant U.S. agencies, but also between our international friends and partners.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF), through the Office of Polar Programs, manages the USAP and supports scientific research by overseeing a massive cooperative effort among researchers, the military, and civilian agencies. Antarctic research has three goals: to understand the region and its ecosystems; to understand its effects on (and responses to) global processes such as climate; and to use the region as a platform to study the upper atmosphere and space. 

In July, the U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel released its report finding that U.S. Antarctic Program activities are well managed but suffer from an aging infrastructure, lack of capital budget, and the effects of operating in an unforgiving environment. Witnesses today discussed the feasibility of implementing the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations during a time of budgetary constraint, focusing on why research through the USAP should be prioritized. 

The Panel’s Chair, Mr. Norman Augustine, emphasized the importance of maintaining U.S. leadership in Antarctica.  “Today we can’t reach our space station… without flying on Russian launch vehicles.  Similarly, we can’t get to Antarctica today without using Russian ice breakers; and that is a trend that is probably something a great nation would not want to have.”

The Director of NSF, Dr. Subra Suresh, noted the importance of responding to the logistical requirements associated with the U.S. presence in Antarctica, “We must continuously address and anticipate the logistics—often extremely complex and always in a remote and harsh environment—that are needed to implement frontier science and engineering research.” 

Another member of the Blue Ribbon Panel, General Duncan McNabb, strongly advocated modernizing infrastructure in Antarctica and particularly transportation technologies.  “Given the challenges of providing logistics support to this austere area, optimizing transportation assets is essential,” General McNabb said.  “With new technology, capabilities, and concepts of operations there are excellent opportunities to significantly improve air, land, and sea transportation options.”

Dr. Warren Zapol, Chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, testified on the importance of leveraging opportunities to enhance America’s Antarctic program. “Making use of international and multidisciplinary collaboration, emerging technologies and developing robust sensors, and educational opportunities, the next 20 years of Antarctic and Southern Ocean research have the potential to advance our understanding of this planet, and beyond. A robust and efficient U.S. Antarctic Program is needed to realize this potential.”

The following witnesses testified before the Committee:

Mr. Norman R. Augustine, Chair, U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel

The Honorable Subra Suresh, Director, National Science Foundation

General Duncan J. McNabb (USAF-Retired), Member, U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel

Dr. Warren M. Zapol, MD, Chair, National Research Council's Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean