Meeting U.S. Polar Icebreaking Needs

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star icebreaking operations on Jan. 25, 2017, en route to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, photo by Chief Petty Officer David MosleyIn the Arctic, the United States must be able to protect its economic and defense interests, as well as its citizens and natural resources. In the Antarctic, it must maintain an active presence that enables access to its scientific research stations and inspections as specified in the Antarctic Treaty.

The U.S. lacks adequate icebreaking capability in the polar regions to support these strategic national interests, concludes . The U.S. Coast Guard currently has three multimission polar icebreakers in its inventory: the Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy. However, the Polar Sea was removed from service in 2011 after a major engine casualty and is being used for parts. Only the Polar Star — built in 1976 and nearing the end of its useful life — is capable of performing the annual breakout and resupply of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

The U.S. should build four heavy icebreakers to increase USCG’s icebreaking capability while minimizing the life-cycle costs of acquiring and operating the icebreakers, the report says. It urges an acquisition strategy that includes block buy contracting with a fixed-price incentive fee contract to ensure the best value for investment of public funds. By taking advantage of the approach outlined in the report, the average cost per heavy icebreaker is estimated to be $791 million. Building four heavy icebreakers of common design will reduce operating and maintenance costs over the life of the vessels, improve continuity of service, and improve operational effectiveness.

The report’s recommended schedule for the construction of four vessels assumes a start date in the second half of 2019, which would commission the first ship in mid-2024 and the second ship in mid-2025. Until at least two new polar icebreakers are commissioned, the Coast Guard should keep the Polar Star operational by implementing an enhanced maintenance program, which would require several upgrades to the ship’s operating, main propulsion, and sanitary systems. This program could be accomplished within the USCG’s average annual repair expenditures for the Polar Star.

Given the pivotal role of polar oceans in global circulation and Earth and ecosystem processes, and their national security importance, maintaining U.S. polar oceanographic research capability is vital for the nation, the report says. The USCG should ensure that the new icebreakers are “science-ready,” and one should have full science capability to be used as a replacement for the Healy, which is approaching the end of its operational life.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Continuity of Vital Ocean Observations

Covering approximately 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean plays a critical role in climate and weather. This massive reservoir of heat, carbon, and water influences tropical storms, El Niño, and longer climate trends. Ocean observing systems provide information essential for monitoring and forecasting changes in Earth’s climate on timescales ranging from decades to centuries. These observations can also contribute to improvements in weather forecasting, marine resource management, and maritime navigation, and provide a wide range of benefits to the agricultural, shipping, fishing, insurance, and energy-supply industries.

TAO Buoy Array deployment preparations on board the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, photo by Paula Campbell/NWS National Data Buoy Center says that the continuity of ocean observations is vital to gain an accurate understanding of the climate and predict future changes, and the report calls for a decadal national plan to ensure critical ocean information is available. To be effective, coordinated and high-level leadership and long-term investment are needed.

Sustained ocean observations require investment in new technological developments such as new sensors, materials, battery technology, and more efficient electronics to increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and longevity of ocean-observing instruments, the report says. A capable fleet of global and ocean-class research vessels are essential for deploying and maintaining these new technologies and observing the vast ocean. The U.S. must also retain and replenish the researchers and technicians in key government and academic laboratories associated with sustained ocean observing.

The United States' current contributions to the international network of ocean-observing activities are substantial, but issues related to flat or declining funding are jeopardizing the country’s leadership and creating challenges in maintaining long-term ocean-related climate observations. If the funding that relies on annual budget approval or short-term grants is disrupted, ocean-climate measurements may be discontinued, reducing the value of the observations made to date and in the future. The report highlights an opportunity to create new models for government partnerships with the private and nonprofit sectors in order to accomplish shared goals for ocean observing and research, filling the gaps left by limited government funding.

The Academies’ study was funded by the National Academy of Sciences’ Arthur L. Day Fund and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Informing the Regulation of Air Pollutants

To obtain important information about the effects of outdoor air pollution on human health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carries out experiments in ©iStock/ISpiyaphongwhich volunteer participants agree to be intentionally exposed by inhalation to specific pollutants at restricted concentrations over short periods. These experiments, known as Controlled Human Inhalation-Exposure (CHIE) studies, are performed in order to understand pathways of toxicity by which air-pollutant exposures might lead to illness or premature death among sensitive individuals in the general population. They are designed to observe temporary and reversible responses without causing clinical effects.

finds that these studies are warranted and should continue under two conditions: when they provide additional knowledge that informs policy decisions and regulation of pollutants that cannot be obtained by other means, and when it is reasonably predictable that the biological responses of study participants will be of short duration and reversible.

Results from CHIE studies are used to inform the periodic review of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for common pollutants, such as ozone and particulate matter, and advise other policy decisions. Ozone and particulate matter CHIE studies have enabled investigators to separate the effects of exposure to such individual pollutants from effects associated with exposures to complex ambient mixtures, the report says. They have also provided unique information on short-term exposure-response relationships that cannot be obtained from animal inhalation studies or epidemiologic studies.

The report concludes that the societal benefits of CHIE studies are greater than the risks posed to the participants, which are unlikely to be large enough to be of concern. However, despite EPA’s substantial efforts to screen potential participants and monitor their health status shortly before, during, and after the study, it is not possible to definitively say that there is no risk to the subjects in these studies. EPA should regularly review and update its risk-profile information on groups that show sensitivity to air-pollutant exposures to inform decisions on who should be included in CHIE studies and who should be excluded. The agency also should improve the way consent information is communicated with potential participants, and plain language should be used to present potential risks.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA’s STAR Research Program

Science to Achieve Results (STAR) is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s primary competitive extramural research program. Created to address critical gaps in knowledge in areas of science that are relevant to the agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment, STAR provides research grants to support individual investigators, multidisciplinary centers, and graduate fellows.

©iStock/vitranc finds that STAR has played an integral role in addressing environmental and human health research priorities that help improve air and drinking water quality and protect children’s health, among other outcomes. The report recommends EPA continue to use the program to respond to the nation’s emerging environmental and health challenges.

Between the last Academies review of the program in 2003 — which strongly endorsed the program as an essential part of EPA’s overall research capabilities — and 2015, STAR awarded grants to 541 individual investigators and 53 centers. These grants have produced influential research results that were utilized in local, state, and federal government regulatory and decision support documents. The research has also been incorporated into guidance documents of organizations like the American Public Health Association.

While the program has produced many public benefits, EPA does not consistently track and synthesize them, the report says. A more robust database that could be easily searched to detect the link between grants, fellowships, and public benefits would be useful. The program should also partner with other federal agencies in efforts to improve communication of the public impacts of the research.

EPA should consider developing a mechanism to allow public input to the STAR research agenda or the submission of unsolicited proposals. Additionally, the recently discontinued STAR fellowship program that supported graduate and doctoral students should be restored.

Since the report was released, EPA has announced that the management of STAR program research grants will continue under a reorganization of labs and offices designed to maintain the quality of the agency’s research.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Stronger Science to Estimate the Social Cost of Carbon

©iStock/MattGushThe social cost of carbon (SC-CO2) is an estimate, in dollars, of the net damages incurred by society from a 1 metric ton increase in carbon dioxide emissions in a given year. The SC-CO2 is intended to be a comprehensive estimate of the net damages from carbon emissions — that is, the net costs and benefits associated with climate change impacts such as changes in net agricultural productivity, risks to human health, and damage from events like floods. Federal and state government agencies have used the SC-CO2 when analyzing the impacts of various regulations, including standards for vehicle emissions and fuel economy, regulation of emissions from power plants, and energy efficiency standards for appliances.

The federal Interagency Working Group (IWG) on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases released in 2010 a methodology to estimate the SC-CO2. The National Academies were asked to assemble a committee to examine potential approaches for a comprehensive update to this methodology to ensure that SC-CO2 estimates reflect the best available science.

The committee’s report, , says that the federal government should use a new framework that would strengthen the scientific basis, provide greater transparency, and improve characterization of the uncertainties of the estimates.

To estimate the economic consequences of CO2, the IWG’s original methodology averaged the results from three different “integrated assessment models” — models that included all aspects of carbon impacts from emission estimates to discount rates, which convert future damages into present dollars. The report recommends that the IWG “unbundle” this process and instead use a framework in which each step of the SC-CO2 calculation is developed as one of four separate but integrated modules: the socio-economic module, which generates projections of greenhouse gas emissions based on its estimates of population and world economic output; the climate module, which translates changes in emissions into changes in temperature; the damages module, which estimates the net impact of temperature changes in dollar terms; and the discounting module.

The report finds that differences in the fixed discount rates used by the IWG methodology have large impacts on the estimates; the SC-CO2 estimates projected for 2020 per metric ton emitted is $62 using a 2.5 percent rate, $42 using a 3 percent rate, and $12 using the 5 percent rate (in 2007 dollars).

Instead of using fixed discount rates, the discounting module should incorporate the relationship between economic growth and discounting for calculating the rates, which would help account for uncertainty surrounding discount rates over long time periods. The IWG should clearly state how the SC-CO2 estimates would be combined with other types of cost-benefit estimates in regulatory impact analyses.

Since the report was released, the IWG was formally disbanded. However, nonprofit and academic researchers are working on advancing the report’s recommendations to update the SC-CO2, and Canada and some state governments are interested in incorporating the updates in their legislative estimates.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.