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Fact Sheet
U.S. Antarctic Program

December 29, 2008

Background: The National Science Foundation (NSF), through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), manages U.S. scientific research in Antarctica, the southernmost continent. The program was established in 1959--immediately after the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY)--during which 12 nations established 60 Antarctic research stations.

NSF is an independent federal agency and is the only federal agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering. The USAP is a part of NSF's Office of Polar Programs (OPP). NSF not only manages the USAP, but NSF's director chairs the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC).

President Reagan in a 1982 Presidential Memorandum confirmed NSF's management role for the nation's scientific presence in Antarctica. 

More recently, during the Bush Administration, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy named NSF as the lead federal agency for coordinating U.S. research and education activities for the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008.

During IPY, which began in March 2007, the United States took a leading role among more than 60 nations in deploying thousands of researchers in a global research campaign to improve our understanding of the role of the polar regions as part of a global system. IPY extends through March 2009 to facilitate researchers' work during two annual observing cycles in each polar region, particularly in the isolated areas that are prohibitively cold and dark for roughly six months a year.

Major international and interagency science deployments were supported in Antarctica by USAP as part of IPY.

Scientific goals: The program's goals are: to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems; to understand the region's effects on, and responses to, global processes such as climate; and to use Antarctica's unique features for scientific research that cannot be done as well elsewhere. Research is done in Antarctica only when it cannot be performed at a more convenient location.

Among the scientific disciplines encompassed by this broad mandate are astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics.

Program officers at NSF's Arlington, Va., headquarters administer grants to scientists nationwide who are interested in conducting research in Antarctica. Grants are made only after proposals have been reviewed by panels of subject-matter experts and found to exhibit exemplary intellectual merit as well as plans for broadly disseminating the knowledge obtained through the research.

USAP's international environmental role:  While the U.S. Department of State leads the U.S. delegation to the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), where the international community discusses a range of issues pertaining to the continent, NSF leads the U.S. delegation to the ACTM's Committee on Environmental Protection.

Research stations: To achieve the USAP goals, NSF operates three U.S. scientific stations year-round on the continent.

  • McMurdo Station. Located on the Ross Sea, Antarctica's largest station serves as a "gateway" to Antarctica for U.S. scientific field teams as well as the hub for most of the U.S. scientific activity. During the Southern Hemisphere's summer (austral summer), the population of scientists and support personnel at McMurdo often exceeds 1,000 people. In the austral winter (from February to early October), the population drops to roughly 180 persons. Even at the height of the austral summer, the population at McMurdo is equivalent to the enrollment of an average U.S. high school and is situated on a landmass the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined.

  • Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Located 841 statute miles inland from McMurdo, at the geographic South Pole, this station accommodates a maximum of 250 people during the austral summer. Temperatures there average minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round; average austral winter lows are in the range of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Astronomy and astrophysics are the primary scientific work carried out at the South Pole.

    The station--named for a Norwegian and a Briton who raced to discover the South Pole arriving there in late 1911 and early 1912, respectively--was recently rebuilt over a period of several years. The new, elevated station--the third and newest U.S. station at the Pole--was dedicated in January 2008.

  • Palmer Station. Located on Anvers Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region and logistically isolated from the other stations, it relies mainly on the R/V Laurence M. Gould for transport of passengers and resupply from a port at the southern tip of South America. The R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer provides onboard research support in marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics and can support science in other areas of the Southern Ocean.

People: Some 3,500 Americans are involved each year in the program's research and logistical activities. Women constitute roughly 30 percent of the scientific and support workforce. Every year, more than 800 scientists and their support teams conduct research in Antarctica's unique environment.

Budget: The USAP budget for FY 2008 is approximately $295 million, and includes funds for merit-reviewed grants to scientists as well as logistics support. NSF's budget for FY 2008 totaled slightly more than $6 billion.

Facilities and Logistics: OPP provides scientists with logistics, operational and laboratory support in Antarctica. This includes the three U.S. research stations; summer camps (as required for research in the field); the ice-strengthened research ship, R/V Laurence M. Gould; the icebreaking research ship, R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer; a fleet of ski-equipped aircraft, including  propeller-driven LC-130s, Twin Otters and a Basler 167; and helicopters.

Icebreaking: For many years, the U.S. Coast Guard provided icebreaking capability in McMurdo Sound to open a channel that annually allows ships to supply and refuel the stations at McMurdo and South Pole, and return materials to the United States. In recent years, a privately operated icebreaker has been chartered to open the channel while a Coast Guard vessel remained on stand-by to assist if necessary.

Studies are underway to determine an alternative or combination of alternatives for resupplying the stations, including continued use of icebreakers. Ships of the U.S. academic fleet and the ocean drilling program also occasionally support research in Antarctica.

Aviation support: Since 1999, the 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard, which flies and maintains a fleet of ski-equipped LC-130 "Hercules" aircraft--the only such aircraft squadron in the world--have provided airlift to the program to transport personnel and materiel, primarily on the Antarctic continent. The Guard assumed this responsibility from the U.S. Navy. 

The "Hercs," as the LC-130s are known, are the program's workhorses, transporting scientists and support personnel, and all materials to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (including everything needed to build the new South Pole station) and to in-land sites of scientific research.

Intercontinental airlift from New Zealand to Antarctica is provided primarily by U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets.

Light aircraft and helicopter support for the program is provided by independent contractors.

Logistical support: NSF also contracts with Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC), of Englewood, Colo., for logistical support for the Antarctic program.

Antarctica by the Numbers: Antarctica once was part of an enormous and temperate supercontinent called Gondwana. It broke free of its connection to other landmasses millions of years ago as the other continents drifted northward and began its southward drift. Today, it is a continent of extremes. For example:

  • The continental landmass is 5.4 million square miles, an area larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined.
  • More than 98 percent of the landmass is covered by an ice sheet that has accumulated over millions of years. The ice sheet averages just over 7,000 feet thick, but is more than twice that thick in places.
  • Antarctica holds 90 percent of the world's ice, which in turn represents 70 percent of the world's fresh water. Yet, precipitation in the interior averages only a few inches annually, making Antarctica one of the world's great deserts.
  • The ice sheet at the South Pole is in constant motion, moving about 30 feet every year and necessitating an annual remarking of the geographic South Pole.
  • As the ice moves out toward the edge of the continent, it breaks off, "calving" the world's largest icebergs, including one that was estimated to be similar in area to the state of Delaware.
  • In the unlikely event that the Antarctic ice sheet melted suddenly, it would raise sea level worldwide an estimated 200 feet, submersing much of the Gulf and Atlantic coastal areas of the U.S.
  • Winds blowing from the interior plateau often reach speeds of 80 miles per hour (mph) at the coast and can peak at 180 mph.
  • The lowest surface temperature ever recorded on Earth was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit at Russia's Vostok Station in the continent's interior.

History: The U.S. scientific presence in Antarctica began in 1830, when James Eights became the first U.S. scientist on the continent. In 1841, a U.S. expedition mapped part of the Antarctic coast, proving that Antarctica was a continent. The largest single expedition to Antarctica took place in 1947 when 13 ships and 4,700 personnel were dispatched to the region for the U.S. Navy's "Operation Highjump."


Media Contacts
Dana W. Cruikshank, NSF (703) 292-7738

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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