Raisons D’être

Christchurch, New Zealand

Why have we spent the last three weeks in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean? Everyone aboard this vessel realizes that research here is expensive. It's expensive to fly us here, expensive to run McMurdo and the other polar stations, expensive to sail the ship, and expensive to deploy our instruments and analyze their data. Antarctica is also half a world away from Virginia. So is research here a worthwhile use of taxpayers' money?

To answer these questions I'm going to step out of the pure objectivity and use of plural pronouns that I've tried to maintain during previous dispatches. What follows is my personal opinion, based on factual information whenever it's available. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of VIMS or the College of William and Mary.Group Photo

I believe that research in Antarctica is indeed worthwhile, and that IVARS is an important part of the Antarctic research endeavor. My case is based on three arguments, what I'll call the connective, relative, and intrinsic.

Global Connections

The connective argument recognizes that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are more closely linked to our own backyards than we typically know or appreciate. Links like these are clearer in Antarctica, where the lack of man-made borders accentuates the interconnectedness of things in nature. Antarctica is one and a half times as big as the United States, and winter sea ice doubles its size. In this entire expanse there's not a single property line, city line, county line, state line, or national border to conceal the elemental linkages among water, air, and land.

In the context of IVARS, the most pertinent link is the global carbon cycle. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we emit from our cars, homes, and factories don't remain in the air over Virginia or other parts of the developed world. Their concentrations are rising uniformly around the globe, linking the hazy skies of the mid-Atlantic to the clear air of Antarctica and the surface waters of the Southern Ocean.

The effects of climate change are also global, and human-induced changes in the climate and ecosystems of Antarctica could boomerang to impact Virginia. The Antarctic Ice Cap holds 70% of the world's fresh water, and would raise sea level by 50-60 meters (160-200 feet) if global warming caused it to melt. Melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is more likely, and would raise sea level about 6 meters (20 ft.). Even a few meters of sea-level rise would significantly affect the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and Virginia shoreline. Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) flows through the Atlantic Ocean to the latitude of Boston, and is a major component of the global thermohaline circulation that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the marine food webs on which humanity depends. The potential effects of climate change on the formation of AABW remain unknown.

IVARS research can help us to better understand, predict, and manage future changes in climate and sea level by providing fundamental input to the ocean component of global carbon models. It can also help determine whether iron fertilization in the Southern Ocean is a feasible approach to mitigating the effects of global warming. Finally, IVARS research throws light on the ground state and variability of the Ross Sea food web, crucial management knowledge as commercial fisheries begin to move into the fertile coastal waters of the Southern Ocean.


The relative argument compares the costs and benefits of Antarctic research with those of other government-funded enterprises. The annual budget for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) is around $170 million. That comprises about $40 million in research grants and $130 million for operations and science support. Compare that to many other government expenses and you'll find a great deal. NASA has a total annual budget of $15 billion—much of it to study other parts of our solar system. A typical planetary spacecraft program such as Mars Pathfinder costs about $300 million—thus the oft-repeated adage that we now know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our own seafloor. The annual U.S. military budget is more than $450 billion, and the price tag for a single F-22 Raptor jet (estimated at $140-200 million) roughly equals USAP's total annual spending. The $500,000 federal grant in 2003 to buy buses for Disneyland is more than three times greater than the average annual grant for Antarctic research ($130,000 in 2003). On the private side, the USAP program is of equal magnitude to the New York Yankees' 2004 payroll ($107 million) and Alex Rodriguez's $252 million, 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers.

Comparisons like these could go on and on. My point isn't necessarily that any of these other expenses are unjustified, simply that the funds for Antarctic research are equally justifiable. Moreover, the General Accounting Office and Bush Administration have both lauded the National Science Foundation as an example of government efficiency, with each and every proposal to conduct Antarctic research subjected to a rigorous process of peer-review designed to maximize its value to both science and society. Research in Antarctic has revealed the ozone hole, found meteorites that hint of life on Mars, discovered novel anti-freeze proteins with potential applications in agriculture and medicine, clarified the deleterious effects of UV radiation on marine organisms, quantified the continent's mineral and fossil-fuel resources, detected neutrinos that provide clues to the earliest days of the universe, thrown light on potential food resources such as krill, provided long-term ice-core records instrumental to understanding and predicting future climate change, and helped refine and quantify the Earth's carbon budget. Antarctic research also provides the benefit of promoting international cooperation. The 1961 Antarctic Treaty is unprecedented in achieving the utopian idea of preserving an entire continent for scientific research and cooperation among nations.

Intrinsic Value

The intrinsic argument recognizes an inherent value in exploring the unknown. Without this innate human quality, Native Americans would have never crossed the Bering Land Bridge, Polynesians would have never colonized New Zealand, Columbus would have never sailed the ocean blue, Orville and Wilbur Wright would have remained bicycle mechanics, Mt. Everest would be unclimbed, and our planet's southernmost continent would still be Terra Australis Incognito.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean comprise almost 20 percent of the Earth’s area and represent our planet's largest remaining frontier. Research here not only promises human benefits seen and unforeseen but helps lift the human spirit. The early explorations of Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and Byrd are monuments to human inquisitiveness and perseverance that still motivate today. VIMS' research in Antarctica continues this tradition, and helps bring the Commonwealth international recognition, economic and intellectual capital, and the intangible benefits of exploring the unknown.