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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 99-53 - September 10, 1999

Media contact:

 Peter West

 (703) 292-8070

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Antarctic Research Season to Highlight Seal Ecology, Microscopic Life, Cosmic Origins

In one of the world's largest annual deployments of scientific researchers, more than 800 hundred scientists from universities and other institutions across the United States will travel to Antarctica in the coming months during the U.S. Antarctic Program's 1999-2000 austral summer research season.

Helicopter Once in the field, research teams will undertake a range of projects, including: investigating the ecology of microbes that survive at the South Pole; studying the composition of a continental sheet of ice that covers West Antarctica and attempting to predict its future from its past behavior; and observing the Earth's climate of eons ago, as reflected in materials collected by drilling into the seabed around the continent. The annual research season begins with a massive airlift of the researchers and their support equipment from Christchurch, New Zealand to Antarctica, and is designed to make maximum use of the few months of relatively mild weather and the perpetual daylight on the southernmost continent during the austral summer. Geographic isolation, pristine air and other environmental conditions make Antarctica a unique, world-class laboratory for studying subjects ranging from the evolution of new species to the evolution of galaxies.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that funds and manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), will support 150 research projects involving 826 researchers in the region this field season. Research will be conducted in the earth sciences, glaciology, biology, medicine, oceanography, meteorology, astrophysics and aeronomy (studies of the upper atmosphere). The field season begins in late October and stretches through February.

The USAP operates three year-round research stations (McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer on the Antarctic continent) as well as two research vessels (the Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Laurence M. Gould). The USAP also conducts collaborative research with the Antarctic programs of other nations.


Attachment: Highlights of NSF's 1999-2000 Antarctic Research Season

See also: U.S. Antarctic Program Fact Sheet (


Highlights of NSF's 1999-2000 Antarctic Research Season

Highlights of NSF's 1999-2000 Antarctic Research Season. The descriptions include the projected time period that the research will be carried out in the field (if scheduled) and the name and institutional affiliation of the project's principal investigator.

INTERNATIONAL TRANS-ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION (ITASE): ITASE is a multi-disciplinary approach to global-change research that integrates meteorology, remote sensing, ice coring, surface glaciology, and geophysics and is part of the overall West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Program. The U.S. ITASE general objectives are to determine the variability of West Antarctic climate and the environmental variability in West Antarctica over the last 200 plus years. U.S. ITASE is coordinated through the science management office located at the University of New Hampshire. The university coordinates the eight funded U.S. science projects that comprise the U.S. ITASE. Researchers from Arizona, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Ohio will be participating in U.S ITASE activities this year. Experiments will include radar studies of bedrock underlying the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; high-resolution radar profiling of snow and ice stratigraphy; and glaciochemistry.

Principal investigator: Paul Mayewski, University of New Hampshire Climate Change Research Center, Durham, NH. Field dates: October 1999 to mid-December 1999.

ANTARCTIC PACK ICE SEALS: The pack ice that surrounds Antarctica contains at least 50 percent of the world's seal population. As a group, these seals are the dominant predators in Southern Ocean ecosystems. Fluctuations in their abundance, growth patterns, life histories, and behavior provide a potential source of information about environmental variability in and around Antarctica. As part of an international project, in which USAP is participating, researchers will count seals from the air and determine species distribution, attach radio and satellite transmitters to the animals to monitor their behavior, and attempt to determine the animals' prey preferences. This will require for the first time that the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer carry helicopters to assist in the research.

Principal investigator: John Bengtston, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Seattle, Wash. Field dates: mid-December to mid-February.

CAPE ROBERTS PROJECT: Evidence that cataclysmic volcanism rocked Antarctica some 21 million years ago was produced last field season by the Cape Roberts project, an international effort involving scientists from the United States, New Zealand, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany. Cape Roberts drilling will continue for the third season this year. The team will attempt to collect cores from the Ross Sea floor by drilling through sea ice into the underlying sea floor. Ice at least 1.5 meters thick is needed to serve as a drilling platform. Sediments and fossils in the drill core should help provide information about conditions 25-70 million years ago, and fill in gaps missing from knowledge of the Earth's climate. During this interval of time, the first ice sheets in Antarctica began to form. This period is particularly important scientifically as it covers a period in the planet's history when Earth last experienced temperatures as warm as those that are expected to occur over the next few centuries as a result of greenhouse warming. Work also will begin this season on analysis of materials drilled in previous years of the project.

Principal Investigators: Peter Webb, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; David Harwood, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Field dates: October to mid-December.

MICROBES AT THE SOUTH POLE: Although associated in the public mind with images of vast penguin colonies – which exist only on the continent's temperate coast – most of Antarctica is a frozen desert, devoid of life except at the microscopic level. Researchers this year will attempt to determine the species and abundance of microscopic algae in permanent ice and snow and will study the microbes' metabolic activity and molecular biology to try to understand how they live and how they got there. How life can exist in such incredibly harsh conditions: the Pole is in total darkness most of the year and average low temperatures in winter routinely drop as low as minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Their findings may have implications for studies of how life may survive in extreme environments elsewhere in the solar system.

Principal investigator: Edward Carpenter, Marine Science Research Center, State University of New York at Stony Brook. Field dates: January.

ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS AT THE SOUTH POLE: The atmospheric conditions at the South Pole make it a world-class astronomical observatory. Several projects will be conducted this year. They include:

  • Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA): Buried under the clear, deep ice at the South Pole and using the ice as medium for detecting subatomic particles, AMANDA represents the first steps toward creating a neutrino telescope that is a square-kilometer-sized. By making images of high-energy neutrinos, AMANDA has the potential to discover discrete sources of neutrinos, and shed light on the "dark-matter" particles that astronomers believe make up most of the matter in the universe. AMANDA also can search continuously for supernova explosions in the Milky Way galaxy and perhaps even search for the birth of the super-massive black holes that power quasars.

    Principal investigator: Robert Morse: University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI): An array of 13 telescopes, DASI will be assembled at the Pole this year after being shipped from Illinois. The device will assist scientists to study the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang that brought the universe into being and from which galaxies formed.

    Principal Investigator: John Carlstrom, University of Chicago.

  • Origins of the universe: Using enhancements to a telescope dubbed "VIPER," researchers will attempt to study the condition of the universe as it was 300,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe existed as a plasma, or an extremely hot gas. The telescope will attempt to detect the remnants of gravity waves that existed in the plasma that would indicate whether the plasma was uniformly distributed.

    Principal Investigator: Jeffrey Peterson, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

CONSTRUCTION AT AMUNDSEN-SCOTT SOUTH POLE STATION: Modernization and upgrading of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station continues this season. The existing station is 20 years old and has exceeded its design life. The South Pole Modernization Project (SPMP), a $128-million initiative, will replace the existing station by 2005. Construction crews worked over the austral winter to complete the interior construction of a new garage and machine shop at the station. Work will begin this summer to prepare the foundations for a replacement laboratory – which will be built on supports above the ice cap – in the station's "dark sector," an area that is shielded from visible light and electromagnetic radiation which would interfere with astronomical research conducted at the Pole. Construction also will begin on the exterior of a new power plant. The power plant's interior will be completed during the upcoming austral winter. The reconstruction project is on schedule and within budget.


NSF South Pole Program Contact: Jerry Marty, facilities construction, operations and maintenance manager, (703) 306-1032.

Editors: Digital images of architect's renderings of the new station are available through the media contact listed above. Research planned for the 1999-2000 field season runs the gamut from the physiology of deep-diving penguins and how they survive in frigid waters to using long-range balloons as airborne platforms to study solar radiation. To find out if an institution or scientist in your area is conducting research in Antarctica this season, contact the media representative.



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