Future of Antarctica -- Greener, More Robots

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A penguin on Snow Island, Antarctica.
Corbis

THE GIST

- Last time officials did this big of a review, a new base was built at the South Pole.

- The biggest questions facing scientists is figuring out how Antarctica is reacting to climate change.

- The future will also include more nation-to-nation collaboration, like the international Space Station.

The future of Antarctica is greener, cheaper and will probably involve more sharing.

Oh, and more robots.

Those are some of the likely recommendations of a blue ribbon panel looking at how the United States will conduct science on the frozen continent during the next two decades.

The U.S. spends about $380 million each year to support more than 1,200 scientists and support personnel in Antarctica. The last time officials did this big a review, they decided to build a new base at the South Pole and a one-square kilometer neutrino observatory under the ice cap.

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The biggest question facing scientists now is figuring out how Antarctica is reacting to climate change -- melting glaciers, rising seas and shifting wildlife, for example -- and ways to support more science in a time when funds from Washington will probably not increase.That's where the robots come in, explained Norm Augustine, chairman of the blue ribbon panel on Antarctica.

"There's going to be more big science rather than small projects, more robotics and more remote observational networks," Augustine said during a break from the group's meeting Friday in Washington. "The two big drivers are people and fuel. It's terribly expensive to take people down there and keep them healthy."

To cut fuel costs, the panel is considering greening the base at McMurdo Station, which supports more than a thousand people during the busy Antarctic summer (November to February).

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This year, the National Science Foundation is planning to install the base's first solar panels, as well as explore the possibility of tapping a nearby active volcano called Mt. Erebus for geothermal heat that could run turbines and produce electricity. A wind turbine already provides 7 to 20 percent of the base's electricity, depending on the speed of the winds and energy demands.More renewables could help lower the carbon footprint of McMurdo. The station's generators currently burn six million gallons of fuel to keep the dormitories warm, labs well-lit and winterized airplanes flying across the massive continent.

Look for the future to see more nation-to-nation collaboration -- just like the International Space Station, and more pooling of financial resources. Officials at the NSF are already talking to their counterparts in France, Australia and Russia about building a new research icebreaker.

Finally, it's likely the 55 year old base at McMurdo -- which today boasts three airfields, a heliport, sewage treatment plant, fire station, 100 buildings and three bars -- will be getting a facelift.

"It's a tired facility," Augustine said about McMurdo. "Tired and inefficient."

Augustine noted that there are many buildings that have little or no insulation, while storage units for lab equipment are often outdoors and difficult to access.Some older wooden buildings remain a fire hazard.

That point was driven home recently after a fire two months ago destroyed the Brazilian Antarctic base on an island off the Antarctic Peninsula, killing two sailors who were trying to extinguish the flames. More than 45 scientists -- mainly biologists and oceanographers - lost their work and equipment.The flames were made worse by the dry conditions, high winds, and cold temperatures that froze seawater being pumped through fire hoses.The disaster at the Brazilian base could be a wake-up call for managers of U.S. facilities.

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"Many of the buildings (at McMurdo) are old," said panel member Diana Wall, a soil ecologist at Colorado State University and longtime Antarctic researcher. "Are there ones we should tear down or just tweak them a little to make improvements?"

In fact, the panel is considering using some of the old wooden buildings to produce energy, an estimated 500,000 pounds of scrap wood. Panel members and NSF officials say Antarctica is kind of like the U.S. mission in space -- it's a hard, expensive place to do science, and the U.S. doesn't have the resources it used to.

At the same time, they say understanding how Antarctica is changing is vital to understanding how the rest of the planet's climate is behaving as well.

"Can we have great science and also predict how the climate is changing?" Wall said. "We have to improve our (climate) models a lot and that takes getting the right data."

Panel members say they expect to release their final report on the future of Antarctic science by June.

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