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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Polar Connections"

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 birthday.

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 that speech:

"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 of disciplines.

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 short.

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 today.

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 or less.

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 Hemisphere.

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 their flow.

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 cannot go.

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 thousand times.

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 space.

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 ozone depletion.

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 years ago.

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 years.

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 our discovery.

Thank you.



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