The mounting cost of maintaining U.S. research operations in Antarctica is putting the squeeze on polar science, according to a new review by an independent panel commissioned by the White House. And solving the problem may require cutting science spending, at least temporarily.

The U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation, maintains three year-round stations on the southern continent and supports more than 50 field camps that spring up each summer, during the main Antarctic field season.

But doing so is costly. Spending on transportation, support personnel and other logistics now consumes between 85 and 90 percent of the USAP budget, the new review says, a consequence of operating elderly, energy-intensive facilities on the coldest, driest, highest continent on Earth.

"We are convinced that if we don't do something fairly soon, the science will just disappear," said Norm Augustine, the retired former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who led the review panel. "Everything will be hauling people down and back, and doing nothing."

That is of special concern given the region's role in global climate change and the many scientific discoveries made by Antarctic researchers, including the presence of a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole.

National Science Foundation chief Subra Suresh said his agency "will take this report extraordinarily seriously." John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the administration aimed to ensure U.S. Antarctic research "remains on a strong and stable footing well into and through the 21st century."

But for a program hobbled by aging infrastructure in a tight budget climate, achieving that goal could require some short-term scientific sacrifices, the review committee said.

'Cutting back on science for a period'
The immediate needs the panel identified include upgrading or replacing McMurdo and Palmer stations, repairing or replacing Palmer's pier and boat ramp, modernizing communications capabilities at all three USAP bases, building or leasing new heavy icebreaking ships and increasing energy efficiency wherever possible.

To pay for the improvements, the group recommends decreasing NSF's budget for Antarctic research by 6 percent a year for four years and increasing spending on improving the Antarctic Program's infrastructure and logistics by the same amount over the same period.

Reducing the number of support personnel employed by the contractor that runs the U.S. Antarctic Program's three bases by 20 percent could help soften the blow by freeing up enough money to make 60 new science grants of $125,000 each, annually.

And delivering more supplies to the landlocked U.S. base at the South Pole, Amundsen-Scott, by overland traverse instead of cargo flights could reduce fuel costs.

Augustine, who described the proposal as a "straw man," said it was "not without pain."

"Probably among the things most of us are least happy about with our work is the notion of cutting back on science for a period," he said, adding that panel members were concerned that merely recommending increased spending, even for a period of a few years, would be a tough sell in Congress.

"If you go to Capitol Hill and say, 'We need more money,' you don't even get listened to," Augustine said. "If you say, 'We have a legitimate investment and we're willing to share some of the load,' and it's better for the country and in this case, the scientific community, they'll listen to you. We spent the morning on Capitol Hill. They listened to us."

The scramble for an icebreaker
A separate budget problem: how to pay for a new U.S. icebreaker, a ship experts say is desperately needed. Augustine calls it "the elephant in the living room."

The current U.S. icebreaking fleet includes just one functional vessel, the Coast Guard cutter Healy. Designed and operated as a research ship, the Healy cannot break through the thickest ice. The nation's two heavy-duty icebreakers are laid up at their home port in Seattle. The Polar Sea is set to be decommissioned; the Polar Star is undergoing repairs to extend its life another seven to 10 years.

That leaves the United States without a ship of its own that is capable of leading the annual "break-in" to Antarctica's McMurdo Station to deliver fuel, food and other cargo.

NSF has filled the gap with a series of short-term leases with mixed results. The agency was forced to consider canceling the 2011-2012 Antarctic field season after the Swedish government broke an agreement last year to lend its heavy-duty icebreaker, Oden, for the trip to McMurdo.

With no American icebreaker available to do the job, the U.S. government began what Coast Guard Cmdt. Robert Papp Jr. described to lawmakers last year as "a strenuous chase ... trying to catch up."

NSF scrambled to secure the services of a Russian ship, the Vladimir Ignatyuk, to allow the field season to go on as planned. But even after securing the Ignatyuk for last year's trip, there were questions about whether the ship would be available for the 2012-2013 Antarctic summer.

In May, NSF said the Murmansk Shipping Co. had decided the Ignatyuk would not be available to service U.S. Antarctic bases during the coming field season or in future years. The agency said it had enough fuel on hand at McMurdo to keep the station running until February 2014 "at a somewhat reduced operating level" with other goods delivered by cargo flights.

'Now we are in a train wreck'
The agency eventually managed to assuage Murmansk's concerns about its ship's ability to handle the thick ice near McMurdo, freeing the Ignatyuk to lead the next U.S. resupply cruise, after all.

But the incident illustrates a key point of the new report -- that the dwindling fleet of U.S. icebreakers creates significant uncertainty for the National Science Foundation, its contractors and the scientists it supports.

"The U.S. icebreaker fleet has been allowed to atrophy over the years, where we barely have the ability to conduct that [break-in] operation reliably," Augustine said.

His panel supports the White House's fiscal 2013 request for $8 million to allow the Coast Guard to begin work on the design for a new polar icebreaker.

The need for that type of ship may be even more urgent in the Arctic, where receding sea ice is opening the region to new fishing, shipping, tourism and oil and gas exploration, creating a bevy of new responsibilities for the Coast Guard.

When an unseasonably early storm hit Nome, Alaska, last November, it left the city's port inaccessible. Faced with the possibility that Nome could run out of fuel before spring thawed the ice blocking the port, the Coast Guard decided in early January to send its only working icebreaker, the Healy, to escort an oil tanker on an emergency fuel run.

That delivery averted disaster in the remote Alaskan city. But it came at a cost for scientists who rely on the Healy to conduct research in the Arctic. Because the ship arrived home to its Seattle port for maintenance later than scheduled, the Coast Guard scrambled to rework its packed summer science itinerary.

"We all had to take five to six days off of our schedules in order to make our cruises happen," said Jacqueline Grebmeier, a biological oceanographer at the University of Maryland who will head to the Chukchi Sea on the Healy early next month. "In the beginning, we were going to drop one of the cruises. But we said, we need to just share the pain on this."

Grebmeier, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that recommended building new icebreakers five years ago, is frustrated by the lack of progress on the problem.

"We in the science community are now competing for one icebreaker that we can work in the north, the Healy, and it's 20 years old. The Coast Guard has been trying, we in the community have been trying, to get Congress and the Navy invested in icebreakers. We've been trying to do this for decades," she said. "Now we are in a train wreck."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500