Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
UCAR/NCAR 40th Anniversary and
Recognition of NSF's 50th Anniversary
June 19, 2000
Thank you, Otis, for a kind introduction. It's a great
pleasure to help commemorate our mutual anniversaries
tonight: the 40th anniversary of the National
Center for Atmospheric Research and the 50th
anniversary of the National Science Foundation.
This is a joint celebration of discovery. Those discoveries
matter a great deal to sustaining our living planet.
I would like especially to greet NCAR's own Warren
Washington, who in addition to being a distinguished
scientist here at NCAR also serves on NSF's governing
body, the National Science Board, and chairs its Polar
Issues Task Force.
We see here the poster commemorating NSF's 50th
The occasion gives us an opportunity to reflect on
the role of both NSF and NCAR as wellsprings of discovery
at both ends of the earth--the polar regions.
Let's look back to when NSF itself was just an idea.
On January 5, 1950, President Harry S Truman delivered
his State of the Union message. It conveys a sense
of great opportunity but also a recognition of fateful
choice. I would like to quote a short excerpt from
"The human race has reached a turning point. Man
has opened the secrets of nature and mastered
new powers...To take full advantage of the increasing
possibilities of nature we must equip ourselves
with increasing knowledge...As a step toward that
end, the Congress should complete action on the
measure to create a National Science Foundation."
That following May, President Truman's train stopped
in Pocatello, Idaho, and that was where he signed
S-247--the act that created NSF. By the way, we recently
learned that the mayor of Pocatello officially named
this past May 10 "National Science Foundation Day."
So if you're in Pocatello, raise a toast to NSF!
Let's move on to another landmark. In 1956, a panel
of the National Academy of Sciences recommended the
formation of a new national institute. It would combine
meteorologists with physicists, chemists, and modelers.
Four years later, of course, the National Center for
Atmospheric Research was born, under the aegis of
NSF. The center has gone on to produce a sparkling
legacy of discoveries about our atmosphere and everything
that affects it.
It's not only scientists who appreciate the atmosphere
at NCAR. In a scene from the Woody Allen movie, "Sleeper,"
Woody Allen himself rappels down the north tower of
NCAR's Mesa Laboratory.
I understand that some NCAR employees served as extras
in the film. If any of you are here tonight, let me
congratulate you because that film placed 80th
on the list of the top one-hundred comedies.
This afternoon, I'll be looking beyond facilities and
institutions to the very ends of the Earth. In fact,
both the National Science Foundation and NCAR have
forged "polar connections." Both have recognized that
the polar regions let us see our planet in fresh and
unexpected ways, producing critical insights about
our entire world.
Polar insights underscore another linkage: the vital
connection between basic research and sustaining our
living planet. Certainly the Boulder community itself
exemplifies many of these ties across the spectrum
Even today, the polar regions--along with the deep
oceans--present some of our planet's last frontiers
that call for major exploration.
Tonight we will sample just a few highlights from a
steady stream of discoveries drawn from across the
disciplines, and many with support from local institutions.
For the historical connection, we can cast back to
Captain James Cook. History's most famous navigator
visited both polar regions, mapping coastlines from
the Antarctic to the Arctic. In the north, he sought
to open the legendary Northwest Passage--the ocean
route that would connect Europe to Asia. Venturing
south, he hoped to claim--for Britain--the Great Southern
Continent. Beyond political motives, his expeditions
also bore scientific fruit. One botanist called one
of Cook's expeditions "the first organized and thoroughly
equipped voyage of biological exploration."
Cook's voyages of 1772-1775, established that a continent
must exist south of where he sailed. As he wrote in
1775, "The excessive cold, the many islands, and vast
floats of ice all tend to prove that there must be
land to the south." But he judged such a land of no
value. "...It would not be worth the discovery..,"
he said. "I make bold to declare that the world will
derive no benefit from it."
The scientific value of the polar regions took centuries
to recognize. Just as north and south have singular
scientific challenges, they have played very different
roles in the history of our own species. Human beings
have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. But
in Antarctica--as the dark expanse on this map shows--at
the middle of the last century half the continent
still had not been seen. In any case, the histories
of polar exploration are too rich for me to do justice
to them here.
The National Science Foundation developed a strong
commitment to polar research during the International
Geophysical Year of 1957-58--known as the IGY for
As NSF's first director, Alan Waterman, said,
"...many geophysical phenomena can only be explored
by the use of simultaneous and coordinated observations
made over large areas of the earth's surface,
including the world's polar...regions."
For the first time during the IGY, year-round polar
platforms were created to support international science.
In the Arctic, the United States conducted research
at 76 stations. In the Antarctic, 12 nations established
about 60 research stations. That included six U.S.
bases, of which McMurdo and South Pole still exist
Over time, international cooperation has proven vital
to polar scientific progress. In the south, the Antarctic
Treaty came into being against a Cold War backdrop.
Antarctica could well have been a war zone instead
of a scientific reserve. In the Arctic, eight nations--now
including Russia--have joined in an Arctic Council.
In 1922, the British scientist Apsley Cherry-Garrard
wrote, "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest
and most isolated way of having a bad time." Conditions
have improved a bit since then, and our harvest of
polar research now spans the disciplines, from the
edge of the atmosphere to the deepest ocean trenches.
In time it stretches from the brief lifespan of a
microorganism to the very beginnings of our universe.
I would now like to survey some polar research highlights,
drawn from the spectrum of sciences.
Here's the ocean connection. Both polar regions play
key roles in driving the world's ocean circulation
and climate change, perhaps affecting the Earth's
slide into glacial epochs. Surface water cools and
sinks to the depths at high latitudes. We know that
during the coolest times of the last ice age, the
amount of water circulated was drastically reduced.
Today's enormous ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica
are left over from the last ice age. Their ice core
record actually connects both polar regions and the
rest of the globe. Like a crystal ball that lets us
look into the past, ice cores harbor the history of
climate change in finer detail than any other record.
The core extracted by the Greenland Ice Sheet Project
at Summit, Greenland--shown here--along with a European
core, revealed startling news about climate.
The two cores provide the longest detailed climate
record for the Northern Hemisphere. From it we have
learned that our agriculture and industry arose while
climate was unusually stable. Through most of the
past 100,000 years, our climate has seen large, abrupt
changes--with switches taking place in 10 years or
less. As glaciologist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania
State University points out, in Greenland, changes
of about 15 degrees Fahrenheit--equal to the difference
between Chicago and Atlanta--happened in a decade
Let's look for a moment at Vostok Station in East Antarctica,
whose ice core provided Greenland's counterpart--about
420,000 years of past weather reports from the Southern
The temperature records from north and south seem to
connect, at least on a millennial scale. Vostok's
record tracks well with Greenland's. We need the icy
libraries from both poles to piece together
the climate puzzle.
The dynamics of the ice sheets give us part of the
story. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have the potential
for rapid meltdown. Large streams of fast-moving ice--the
red arrow points to them on the inset photo--drain
the ice sheet into the sea. These streams stop and
start over time. They're influenced by the geology
beneath. It may be a sub-ice volcano causing melting
or the type of sediment under the ice that affects
While some see icebergs as a sign of global warming,
they're really a normal part of an ice sheet's "balance
sheet." Perhaps the largest iceberg ever seen--the
size of Connecticut--is prosaically known as "B-15,"
but has been nicknamed "Godzilla" by University of
Chicago researcher Doug MacAyeal. Totaling 190 by
24 miles in size, it broke off the Ross Ice Shelf
in March and recently split into two. MacAyeal suggests
that B-15 could threaten shipping routes into McMurdo
Station, our largest U.S. base.
Climate models predict that the polar regions are highly
sensitive to climate change. Looking northward, the
ice pack of the Arctic Ocean responds to small changes
in radiation from the sun. It also exerts an influence
on life in the entire world ocean. What is more, the
Arctic ice pack has dwindled by 2-3% per decade for
the past few decades.
Ice Station SHEBA was the largest and most complex
project ever mounted by NSF in the Arctic. SHEBA stands
for Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean. The core
of the station was an icebreaker purposely frozen
into the pack ice of the ocean hundreds of miles north
of Alaska and left to drift for a full year.
We can see SHEBA's drift over the year. At the start,
researchers found ice one meter thinner than expected,
and even thinner ice at the end. Of course, a single
experiment cannot pin down global warming. SHEBA studies
sought, instead, to sort out the processes that govern
the Arctic ice pack--and ultimately to refine models
to predict Arctic Ocean conditions.
Access to the polar regions has always been a crucial
issue for research. The United States' newest polar
vessel is the Coast Guard's Healy, dedicated to supporting
science in the Arctic. In fact, it has just undergone
sea trials in the Arctic. The icebreaker is named
for Captain Michael A. Healy, whose picture you see.
Also known as "Hell Roaring Mike," Healy--who was part
African American and part Irish--was the foremost
sailor and navigator of his time in the Bering Sea
and Alaskan Arctic regions.
Submarines complement ships for science, providing
a stable and super-quiet platform for research, and
furnishing acoustic data with great clarity. Subs
can also reach some sites in the Arctic where ships
NSF has participated with the Navy and the Office of
Naval Research to use Navy submarines for scientific
cruises, giving us science at a bargain price. So
far the sub cruises support the finding that sea ice
is indeed thinning in the Arctic. Submarine and surface
oceanographic cruises also show that the Arctic Ocean's
bottom bathymetry exerts a strong influence in "steering"
water circulation in the basin.
According to Margo Edwards, a geophysicist at the University
of Hawaii, the submarine cruises have increased the
store of data on the Arctic by more than a hundred
Here's an example. On a recent cruise, Dr. Edwards
as chief scientist aboard the nuclear submarine Hawkbill,
discovered these gouges in the bottom of the ocean
about 600 miles north of the Bering Strait. They seem
to have been carved by huge ice sheets or ice shelves
during the last ice age.
Yet, most computer models currently do not simulate
large ice sheets over the Arctic Ocean. Clearly we
have much to learn.
Our reach into the Arctic continues to expand. This
April, a research team established a temporary camp
at the North Pole to take the pulse of the Arctic
Ocean. Called the North Pole Environmental Observatory,
it is the first congregation of drifting buoys to
be placed at the top of the world. This first long-term
station at the North Pole underscores the importance
of the Arctic in regulating global climate. The array
is expected to be augmented in coming years by studies
from many disciplines.
From ice stations, icebreakers, and submarines to a
permanent North Pole presence, scientific access to
the Arctic has come a long way.
At the bottomof the world, South Pole Station
serves as a unique outpost to study the atmosphere
and the effects of the ozone hole. Atmospheric conditions
also make the South Pole a world-class observatory
for astronomy and astrophysics.
One telescope is actually buried in the ice sheet.
Called AMANDA, the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector
Array, it searches for neutrinos shooting in from
We're making good progress toward modernizing the aging
structure of South Pole Station.
Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, "polar connection"
is the "ozone hole"--the greatest impact civilization
has ever had on Antarctica. The hole was reported
only 15 years ago, in 1985.
In subsequent years, an NSF-funded study in Antarctica--led
by Susan Solomon of NOAA, from right here in Boulder--made
the first measurements of stratospheric chlorine dioxide.
This confirmed that human use of chlorofluorocarbons
played a key role in creating the hole. This year,
Susan received the National Medal of Science, our
country's highest scientific honor, for her work on
Increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun, let in
by the ozone hole, has now been linked to extensive
damage to DNA of eggs and larvae of Antarctic fish,
and to decreased production of phytoplankton. Studies
are now gauging the effect on entire communities.
Researchers are also probing ozone in the Arctic. For
example, this spring, an NCAR team used this C-130
to assess air pollution and its effect on ozone in
the lower atmosphere.
While analysis continues, early results show large
and unexpected areas of ozone depletion near the surface,
including over Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
Meanwhile, other researchers study a northern climate
pattern called the Arctic Oscillation. Still being
resolved, this swing between high and low atmospheric
pressure over the pole and adjacent regions has been
proposed as the "master switch" for Arctic climate.
It could play a role in Arctic warming.
Speaking of global change, back south again we find
the linkages of life. Cryolophosaurus--is a large
carnivorous dinosaur from the same family as Tyrannosaurus
rex, which once roamed Antarctica. It stood 6-to-12
feet tall and stretched 24 feet long. The bones were
found in 1990-91 eroding from the heights of a mountain
that protrudes through the ice sheet.
Those icy conditions are about as far as one can get
from the creature's own habitat of about 200 million
Fish illustrate another polar connection. Arctic and
Antarctic fish have evolved nearly identical antifreeze
proteins--but from different parent molecules. Cooling
events at both poles have driven convergent evolution
of antifreeze in widely separated fish. The poles
are living laboratories for the study of evolution.
Even at the South Pole, there are hints of life in
what was long dismissed as an icy wasteland. Researchers
are on the trail of bacteria that could have adapted
to the extreme drought and cold and strong ultraviolet
radiation of Antarctica. This work is still underway,
and we're looking forward to learning more.
Deep beneath the great ice sheet of east Antarctica
lies Lake Vostok. The lake exists under all the ice
because of the huge pressure from the ice sheet above
and the earth's warmth from below. It seems to have
been sealed off as a lake for at least one million
There is a bacterium thought to have been frozen into
the bottom of the ice sheet from the waters of the
lake. A large and potentially diverse population of
bacteria may well live in the lake. The challenge
is to design a probe to sample the ancient lifeforms
without contaminating the lake in the process.
In the Arctic, we study the adaptations of our own
species. The Arctic social science program has pioneered
new ethics for studying human beings and involving
them as partners in research. Scholars are combining
archeology and anthropology with studies of sea ice
and mammology to examine whaling practices over two
millennia. On the right is another Arctic society.
Reindeer are rounded up in Chukotka in the Russian
Far East. We also support studies that span the region--decoding
prehistoric linkages between the Old and New Worlds.
In the North Atlantic, the Vikings met and traded with
the Inuit peoples from North America. Studies now
trace medieval interactions between environmental
and cultural change. Our societies today confront
some of the same environmental dilemmas--such as climate
shifts and overexploitation of resources--that the
Vikings faced a millennium ago.
During the lifetime of the National Science Foundation,
the extreme environments of the polar regions
have become learning environments. In the TEA
program--short for Teachers Experiencing Antarctica
and the Arctic--teachers accompany scientists into
the field and participate in research, whether at
the South Pole or aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic
Ocean. The program aims to help change the face of
science education to reflect the dynamic spirit of
inquiry. In the field and back home, teachers share
their experiences and mentor other teachers.
I'll cite just one more polar scientific linkage--the
cosmic connection. Antarctica has proven to be a singular
site to collect meteorites. The number found there
equals the sum total of all those collected in the
rest of the world. Some have been found that come
from the Moon and Mars. The flowing ice sheets serve
as a conveyor belt, concentrating the space rocks
in particular locations.
The most cosmic connection of all takes us to the origins
of the universe. In April, cosmologists released the
first detailed images of an infant universe. A telescope
called "BOOMERANG" peered into the cosmos at millimeter
wavelengths and took the sharpest pictures yet of
the early universe.
Our polar journey will now make a final connection.
In Antarctica, "among the scientists, has been a tiny
presence of scholars from that other great realm,
the arts," explains Guy Guthridge, the manager of
NSF's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.
"What, these artists ask, is Antarctica like? What
is Antarctica's contribution to our culture and heritage?
And what is it like to be there? Science is not equipped
to answer these questions completely. So NSF's program
enables artists, writers, photographers, poets, and
other scholars in the humanities to participate in
the U.S. Antarctic Program."
All of the science as well is very recent work. Humans
did not even reach the North and South Poles until
just 90 years ago. Ninety percent of Antarctica's
research literature has been published since the birth
of the National Science Foundation in 1950. In less
than a century the ends of the Earth have become not
remote but central to our present and future. We can
only imagine what further polar connections await