NSF & NMNH Partnership

A Brief History of the NSF Polar Program Cooperative Agreement with the National Museum of Natural History
R/V Eltanin
Photo Credit: National Science Foundation. With a bridge low in the after part of the ship, the R/V Eltanin's enclosed ice tower was often used for spotting icebergs.

From 1963 to 1992, The Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center (SOSC) received and sorted more than 20,000 samples of benthic invertebrates, plankton, algae and fish collected by researchers associated with the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), from subtidal to abyssal depths, from the Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea. (http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/usap.jsp) . More than half of this material was collected by the research vessel Eltanin (http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/fac/oma/history/eltanin.html).

Sorted specimens were sent to taxonomic specialists worldwide for study and identification. Hundreds of thousands of specimens, including type specimens of newly discovered species, were deposited at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The SOSC was dissolved, in 1992, its staff and collections merged into the relevant NMNH scientific departments, with administrative responsibility for the USAP collection assigned to the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. The Department, in 1995, entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs to provide support for the cataloging and management of the USAP collections housed at NMNH. NSF-sponsored investigators working in polar regions continue to deposit specimens and associated data at the NMNH. Future large collections will be acquired from NSF-sponsored Long Term Environmental Research (LTER) projects that are ongoing in the Antarctic region. For a more in-depth look at the history of the USAP program at NMNH, read "The NMNH: an NSF Center of Excellence in Polar Research" in the online Antarctic Journal of the United States, 1997 (Vol. 32, no. 3).

Pre-USAP Antarctic Exploration

The search for the “fabled Southern Continent” began three centuries ago. In 1739, Bouvet Island, 54 degrees South of the equator, was spotted by a French expedition. Nevertheless, the first recorded landing on the continent of Antarctica did not occur until 1821, when sailors from New Haven, CT rowed ashore in search of seals in Hugues Bay. Explorers from many nations have been navigating the Southern Ocean ever since, driven by commercial, strategic and scientific interest, often at the cost of life, limb, goods or vessel. This excerpt from Introduction to Antarctica (PDF) , published by the US Naval Support Service Antarctica in 1967, details the history of Antarctic exploration from the 18 th century until the 1960s.

In observance of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957/1958, twelve nations launched an unprecedented scientific campaign in Antarctica in the 1950s. The United States launched a series of expeditions named Deep Freeze. Originally intended as a short-term effort, the IGY expeditions inspired the international scientific community to obtain more knowledge on Antarctica, and the following year the Antarctic Treaty was signed by all twelve nations in order to facilitate peaceful and cooperative use of the continent. The treaty and associated documents are now known as the Antarctic Treaty System ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_Treaty ) . Today there are 46 signatory nations.

R/V Hero
R/V Hero in the Palmer Station harbor next to the US Coast Guard icebreaker Burton Island, 1976-77. (Photographer: Team Palmer 77 medic Gary Cullen.)
R/V Hero and R/V Eltanin
R/V Hero meets the other NSF Antarctic research ship, the USNS Eltanin, for the first time-- at the pier in Punta Arenas, April 1970 (Antarctic Journal, January/February 1971, photo from La Prensa.)