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In Antarctica, German and South Korean icebreaking research ships regularly fly helicopters to reach remote glaciers. The U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) 30-year-old RV Nathaniel B. Palmer can also carry helicopters. And the British Antarctic Survey’s new RRS Sir David Attenborough has not only a helideck and hangar, but also a “moonpool” port in its hull for deploying undersea instruments.
The planned design for the $1 billion U.S. Antarctic Research Vessel (ARV), a proposed icebreaker intended to replace the Palmer in the early 2030s, includes neither of those features, however. Some U.S. polar scientists are frustrated by the omissions.
“Why is the United States stepping backwards at a core level?” asks Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Scambos last year urged NSF and other science policy leaders to reconsider the ARV design in an open letter co-signed by more than two dozen Antarctic researchers. “Building a new icebreaker is a generational investment,” says Julia Wellner, a marine geologist at the University of Houston. “Limiting an entire generation’s access to the coastal area—where we know there’s some of the most important science we can do for understanding ice sheet mass balance—doesn’t make sense.”
Ship-based helicopter support is particularly important for Antarctic glacial research, said scientists at a workshop held last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The researchers want NSF to reconsider the ARV design before a preliminary review closes at the end of this year.
Before settling on a design, NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP) should wait for the recommendations of a NASEM committee evaluating Antarctic research infrastructure needs, said Amy Leventer, a geoscientist at Colgate University, at an NSF advisory committee meeting held last week. “I think we need to wait and see what they have to say,” said Leventer, chair of an NSF-appointed panel advising the agency on ARV development. The NASEM committee has been gathering community input, and its report is due this fall.
The ARV design reflects OPP’s desire to manage its operational costs, says Tim McGovern, NSF’s ARV project manager. When OPP tried to propose a new ARV a decade ago, he says, “every imaginable area of research specialization chipped in on what they thought the ship should have.” The resulting ship would have ended up costing 50% more to operate than the Palmer and its sister ship, the Laurence M. Gould, combined. This time, McGovern notes, the ARV is being designed to keep operational costs low, despite being larger, more powerful, and better equipped than its predecessors.
Ship-based helicopter operations are expensive, McGovern says. It can cost $2 million to $3 million to operate a pair of helicopters from the Palmer, he says—costs that mean NSF can fund less research. Because of these high costs, McGovern says, the Palmer has deployed helicopters just three times in its entire history.
But the lack of helicopter support has hampered some U.S.-led projects. The Polar Earth Observing Network (PoleNet) has deployed and maintained dozens of GPS and seismic stations to monitor the behavior of West Antarctic glaciers. The servicing of sensors near Thwaites Glacier—a fast-moving glacier whose collapse could destabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—has been delayed 3 years due to COVID-19 and complex overland logistics to reach coastal sites. Launching helicopters from the Palmer could have reduced these costly delays, says Doug Wiens, a PoleNet co–principal investigator and geophysicist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It really would have made a lot of sense.”
Other nations have prioritized fielding ships that can host helicopters. During a February 2022 research expedition, the Palmer and its South Korean counterpart RV Araon were halted by thick ice some 160 kilometers from Thwaites. But the Araon was still able to send helicopters to Thwaites and complete its science mission, including the first direct measurements of ocean temperature near a critical part of the glacier, says Won Sang Lee, a cryoseismologist at the Korean Polar Research Institute. The Palmer had to turn around and study a neighboring glacier.
Germany’s Polarstern routinely keeps two helicopters on board.HANNES GROBE/AWI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Germany’s Alfred Wegner Institute (AWI) includes helicopters in standard operations from its icebreaker, RV Polarstern. The helicopters resupply polar research stations and are also available for 300 to 400 hours of scientific flight time yearly. They are owned by the vessel operator and kept almost year-round on the ship. “There are always two helicopters on the Polarstern,” says Karsten Gohl, an AWI geophysicist. “We simply write in our proposals the amount of flight hours we would like to have.” In February, Gohl used the Polarstern’s helicopters to collect rock samples from coastal outcrops and to deploy sensors for mapping the ocean floor—all with the aim of reconstructing past behavior of the ice sheet near Thwaites.
NSF has encouraged U.S. researchers to partner with South Korea, Germany, and other nations that support ship-based helicopters. Although Antarctic research involves considerable international cooperation, Wellner worries about giving up the chance for U.S. leadership. “Should we be putting U.S. scientists always in the dependent position, the following position, rather than the collaborative lead?” she asks.
But McGovern points out that the ARV is only one among many ongoing efforts to upgrade NSF’s aging Antarctic infrastructure, including a $540 million modernization project for Antarctica’s largest research base, McMurdo Station. “Most other nations that are operating ships don’t operate telescopes at the South Pole or have the largest station on the continent with runways and all of that,” McGovern says. “There are a lot of mouths to feed.”
Correction, 25 April, 2:15 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly described a delayed part of the PoleNet project. It is to service stations near Thwaites Glacier, not install new ones. Also, the affiliation for Doug Wiens has been changed to clarify that he is one of several principal investigators on PoleNet.