BSA Antarctic Scientific Program


The Antarctic Scout will join teams of scientists conducting research during expeditions scheduled for the Antarctic summer season. The focus of this assignment is to add value to the different research teams by providing the positive assistance required to accomplish their mission. As a support member, the candidate will assist the scientists in the daily activities required to successfully conduct their field research projects. These assignments may be as simple as helping to cook the daily meals and doing camp chores to the more challenging tasks of gathering and analyzing samples for testing—and even wrestling seals!

The candidate contributes to the National Science Foundation goal of providing students with opportunities to participate in research activities outside the college or university setting and involving students at all levels with pioneering research.

The Frozen Continent

Antarctica, the continent lying around the South Pole, has an area of 5.4 million square miles, making it larger than the United States and Mexico. An ice sheet reaching nearly three miles in thickness covers all but about 2 percent of this frozen continent.

Antarctica is the coldest continent. The world’s record low temperature of -128.6ºF was recorded there. The mean annual temperature of the interior is -70ºF. Along the Antarctic Peninsula, temperatures as high as 59ºF have been recorded.

The coasts of Antarctica are the windiest places in the world; gusts have been recorded at nearly 200 miles an hour.

Many scientists believe that, some 200 million years ago, Antarctica was joined to South America, Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand in the single large continent Gondwana. There was no ice sheet, the climate was warm, the trees and large animals flourished. Today, only geological formations, coal beds, and fossils remain as clues to Antarctica’s temperate past.

Surrounding Antarctica are the southern parts of the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans. Sea ice to ten feet thick forms outward from the coast. In summer the sea ice occupies less than two million square miles. But in winter it is a wide belt of eight million square miles, an area that exceeds that of the continent itself and which is impenetrable even by icebreakers.

Life has a tenuous hold on Antarctica. The ice-covered interior supports no life at all. Bacteria and yeasts have been recorded on exposed rocks. Lichens and mosses occur in a few ice-free areas, and two flowering plants grow along the Antarctic Peninsula. Native land animals are limited to seventy-six species of insects.

The cold ocean waters are rich in nutrients and produce an immense amount of phytoplankton, which supports large populations of krill, fishes, birds, seals, and other animals. In summer, birds (particularly penguins) and seals come ashore to establish rookeries and breed, but they get their food from the sea.

Solving Global Scientific Problems

The United States and other nations active in Antarctica are determined to understand the nature of Antarctica, its uniquely adapted life forms, and its relationship with the rest of “Spaceship Earth.” In the U.S. program, some 600 investigators perform approximately 125 research projects per year. The National Science Foundation selects most of these research teams from U.S. universities, although some come from federal agencies and other organizations.

Glaciologists study the nature and the dynamics of the world’s largest ice sheet. Ice cores drilled as deep as the bottom of the ice are studied to determine climatic and atmospheric changes over at least the last 100,000 years—information that is vital to understanding the response of the ice sheet to changes in climate.

Surveys and reconnaissance of the biota and habitats were largely completed in the late 1960s, and experimental and ecological studies have been emphasized since. Major attention is on the structure and function of marine ecosystems. Emphasis also is placed on studies of adaptations, particularly to low temperatures.

Although geological maps have been prepared of many Antarctic areas, geological reconnaissance of the continent is not yet complete. Research to date has provided an outline of the region’s geology and geophysics as well as major clues in support of plate tectonics, and hypothesized Gondwana supercontinent. This research has pointed to the resource potential of Antarctica, but it is not intended to identify or quantify deposits of resources.

Unique studies of the earth’s magnetosphere and of sun-earth relationships are possible in Antarctica because of its physically stable location at high geomagnetic latitude. Objectives are to improve understanding of the earth’s upper atmosphere and its near and far space environment, and to investigate solar effects on humans and our environment. The U.S. station at the geographic South Pole is an important location for astrophysics, aimed particularly at understanding the origin of the universe.

Antarctica is the earth’s largest heat sink (or area of cold). Research objectives in meteorology are to determine the relationship between the Antarctic atmosphere and global circulation and to determine Antarctica’s role in global climate. An example is the research in Antarctica that identified the ozone hole and solved the questions of what causes it. Unstaffed automatic weather stations collect data at remote locations. At South Pole Station, a clean-air sampling facility measures the world’s background levels of aerosol propellants, trace gases, and pollutants. Routine weather observations are made at all the U.S. stations.

The southern ocean is a major source of cold water masses that circulate throughout the world’s oceans. Oceanographers perform physical, geological, and geophysical studies to investigate the relationship between oceanic and atmospheric circulation and the physical basis for the region’s high biological productivity.

An Effort Just to Be There

For humans, there is no practical source of food, energy, or materials in Antarctica, and virtually everything used is imported. Three to four people are needed to support the work of each scientist there.

The United States operates three year-round stations in Antarctica. Additional research camps and ships are operated in summer.

McMurdo, the largest Antarctic station, is built on the bare volcanic rock of Ross Island at the farthest south solid ground that is accessible by ship. It is the U.S. program’s logistics hub, with a harbor, landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. Its eighty-five buildings range in size up to three-story structures. Peak summer population can exceed 1,100; winter population is less than 200.

Amundsen-Scott Station, at the geographic South Pole, houses more than 150 in summer and about 28 in winter. It is supplied entirely by airplane from McMurdo.

Palmer Station, on Anvers Island by the Antarctic Peninsula, supports marine biology in conjunction with the research ship, Polar Duke. Palmer’s population ranges from about 10 to 43.

Logistics resources include seven LC-130 airplanes operated by the United States Navy, five UH-1N helicopters also operated by the Navy, one each Navy-operated cargo ship and tanker annually to resupply McMurdo, and a United States Coast Guard icebreaker. A contractor operates stations and provides specialized support to scientists. There are two research ships: the 220-foot Lawrence M. Gould (ice strengthener) and the 308-foot research icebreaker, Nathaniel B. Palmer.

International Cooperation

The Antarctic Treaty provides a legal framework for the area south of 60ºS latitude. It reserves the region for peaceful purposes and encourages environmental protection and international cooperation in scientific research. The United States cooperates with all the treaty nations in research and logistics. Any nation may accede to the treaty, and any nation that conducts substantial scientific activity in Antarctica may participate in consultative deliberations of the treaty system.

About the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is the United States government agency charged with maintaining U.S. strength in scientific research; improving science, mathematics, and engineering education; and aiding in the dissemination of scientific information. This responsibility is carried out largely through grant programs for investigators at colleges, universities, and other institutions.

By U.S. presidential directive, the foundation is responsible for budgeting and managing U.S. activities in Antarctica. This effort is termed the United States Antarctic Program.

Accounts from Previous Antarctic Scouts

Read about the experiences of …