Changes considered for U.S. Antarctic research program

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South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula. Bob Berwyn photo.

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U.S. Antarctic research program to upgrade logistical operations in cost-savings push.

Costs of aging infrastructure, outdated management procedures cut into science funding

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal science officials say they’ve outlined a plan for streamlining U.S. research efforts in Antarctica, including the use of robotics for some logistical tasks, as well as additional use of renewable sources for some energy needs at the three research bases.

The 2012 budget included about $350 million dollars for invaluable climate and atmospheric research that can’t really be done anywhere else. About 3,500 people (including logistical support roles) work with the Antarctic program each year, supporting about 800 scientists working to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems and  to understand the region’s effects on, and responses to, global processes such as climate.

The U.S. maintains three Antarctic research bases: McMurdo Station, on the Ross Sea, which is the largest facility and acts as a gateway for most of the research activity; Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, focusing primarily on astronomy and astrophysics, and Palmer Station, in the Antarctic Peninsula region, where the emphasis is on marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.

This past week, the National Science Foundation responded to the findings of a special panel convened to look for ways to operate the Antarctic Research Program more efficiently. The NSF acknowledged the issues raised by the panel and said it has already started working on implementing some of the recommendations.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report, released in July 2012, found that, “U.S. activities in Antarctica are very well managed but suffer from an aging infrastructure, lack of a capital budget, and the effects of operating in an extremely unforgiving environment.”

The panel concluded that the lack of a capital budget is the main challenge, and that making changes to the logistics support system would help realize long-term savings, but will require front-end investments that could be supported with additional funding, temporary reductions in research, or both.

The panel spelled out a laundry list of problems, including: “A warehouse where some areas are avoided because the forklifts fall through the floor; kitchens with no grease traps; outdoor storage of supplies that can only be found by digging through deep piles of snow; gaps so large under doors that the wind blows snow into the buildings; late 1950s International Geophysical Year- era vehicles; antiquated communications; an almost total absence of modern inventory management systems (including the use of bar codes in many cases); indoor storage inefficiently dispersed in more than 20 buildings at McMurdo Station; some 350,000 pounds of scrap lumber awaiting return to the U.S. for disposal.

“The status quo is simply not an option; sooner or later the atrophying logistics infrastructure will need to be upgraded or replaced. Failure to do so will simply increase logistics costs until they altogether squeeze out funding for science. A ten percent increase in the cost of logistics will consume 40 percent of the remaining science budget,” the panel found.

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4 Responses

  1. What??? No MAPCON… bringing in barcodes as a tool for inventory control… that might bring part of the supply chain up to about 1989 standards.. crazy, and bound to happen; my guess, not before 2020.

  2. That’s about right. Two dorms at McMurdo that were originally intended (and designed for) use in the tropics but which were redirected to the Antarctic, heated and occupied buildings with poorly insulated walls only four inches thick. A great deal should be changed, but I’m not optimistic that the new designs will be very good. Too many of the people designing and managing the stations have never been there in the winter.

  3. I still like the idea floating around McMurdo this last season: Take three years off from science research to completely knock town down the ground and rebuild the entire station at current logistic and technologic standards.

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