Antarctica: a serious research venue, not a playground for boffins
18 Apr 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

Data from Antarctic ice cores provide a information on major environmental changes as well as variations in the chemistry and circulation of the atmosphere.The science that Australia undertakes in Antarctica should be, and be seen to be, in Australia’s national interests. There are many reasons for Australia to be actively engaged in Antarctic science, but our national interests should drive our investment.

Antarctica and its surrounding Southern Ocean is a region of peace and security. As a result, we don’t have to invest in massive security assets to protect our mainland’s southern shores. But maintaining the region as a place of peace and cooperation requires active engagement in Antarctic affairs.

Science is the currency of influence in the Antarctic Treaty System. Since the beginning of the treaty in 1961, Australia has been one of the leading Antarctic nations in terms of scientific output. Over the years, and for the better, Australian science in Antarctica has focussed increasingly on the critical questions that Australia and the world needs to answer about the continent.

The current Australian Antarctic Science Strategic Plan emphasises four themes:

  • Climate Processes and Change
  • Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems: Environmental Change and Conservation
  • Southern Ocean Ecosystems: Environmental Change and Conservation
  • Frontier Science

The first three themes are critical to understanding the role of Antarctica in the global climate system: how Antarctica is changing; what the path and trajectory of climate change is in the region; and how these changes affect the Antarctic region, Australia and the globe.

These are critical questions for Australia. Antarctica drives an enormous component of the global climate system. Understanding how the atmosphere, oceans and the ice exert this influence, and how they are changing, is central to understanding Australia’s future.  Antarctica is also a major driver of our local climate; any loss of its ice sheet will contribute to coastal sea-level rise; and changes in the physical and chemical characteristics of the Southern Ocean will affect its productivity.

The Southern Ocean contains the largest under-exploited fishery in the world—the Antarctic krill fishery. It’s a resource that will most likely become the centre of increased exploitation well before any push to overturn the prohibition on mining in Antarctica. Understanding how the ‘krill-based’ ecosystem operates, and how it might be changing, is central to managing and regulating sustainable fisheries in the region, including the krill fishery—we need to know how it works before we can manage it properly.

Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean are also harbingers of change. The first evidence that ocean acidification was having an effect on living organisms was found in microscopic foraminifera from Southern Ocean waters. Ice cores from Antarctica have plotted the path of southwest WA’s long term drying trend, and very old Antarctic ice from a million year or more-old ice core will reveal past climate cycles that will be able to shed light on the future.

These are big science issues, and Australia should be involved in them, even if it didn’t have a claim to 42% of the Antarctic continent.

But Australia’s place as a leader in Antarctic science isn’t guaranteed. The gradual erosion of Antarctic science expenditure through the application of an indiscriminate efficiency dividend and other recent cuts in the budget of the Australian Antarctic Division have reduced its ability and flexibility to conduct and support priority Antarctic science. Unavoidable operational costs must take priority in this environment, and science often takes a disproportionately bigger hit. Other big science infrastructure costs are also looming. The last major investments in research station infrastructure were made more than twenty years ago. Australia’s only ice-breaking research and supply vessel Aurora Australis is reaching the end of its serviceable life and will become increasingly expensive to keep on the water.

Australia should be an Antarctic leader, not a follower. By virtue of our geographic proximity to Antarctica, Australia is ideally placed to conduct and lead strategically important domestic and international collaborative science programs in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. But we lack the capacity at present to do more than just mark time.  As other emerging Antarctic countries such as China, Korea and India invest heavily in lifting both their logistic and research capabilities, Australia is effectively disinvesting in Antarctic science. As northern hemisphere countries turn their polar efforts to the Arctic, this disinvestment will become even more apparent because Australia will begin to lose its ability to collaborate with (and leverage off) its ‘traditional’ European partners.

As a negotiator of and original signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, and as a claimant state, it is incumbent on Australia to lift its efforts in Antarctic affairs. Investment in priority Antarctic science will return huge dividends to Australia – not just in the currency of influence, but also in knowledge that is vital for Australia’s future.

Anthony Press is chief executive officer of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. Image courtesy of Tas Van Ommen, AAD/ACE.