The frozen continent: what’s news?
7 Apr 2016|

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Apart from the pictures of our Antarctic icebreaker Aurora Australis having run aground near Mawson Station, Antarctica’s been out of the news in the last few months.

But there’s been some interesting Antarctic developments. Our latest Defence White Paper states that Defence will provide niche support for our polar operations, including Air Force heavy air lift to support our Antarctic stations. That’s a game-changer for our polar logistic and science program. Such military support doesn’t violate the ‘peaceful purposes’ provision in Article 1 of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and allows us to project our southern national interests through the ADF.

But the ADF’s role here isn’t as large as that which is played by New Zealand’s Defence Force. Antarctica’s been one of NZDF’s specialist areas of operation since 1965. Last month a Boeing 757 belonging to the NZ Air Force returned to Christchurch with the last 22 personnel who’ve been based in Antarctica for two months under Operation Antarctica. The operation involves up to 220 NZDF personnel deploying during the summer season from October to February.

In a positive move Australia and the UK signed an agreement in December on shared Antarctic priorities from 2015–2020 (PDF). New Zealand has signed a similar agreement (PDF).

Those agreements were part of a recent grand tour of the UK navy icebreaker, the HMS Protector, around the Southern Ocean. It was the first such visit by a UK Antarctic vessel for many decades and a serious flag flying venture. HMS Protector departed Hobart in early December with Australian fisheries officers on board. The patrol demonstrated Britain’s desire for a ‘UK presence across the entire Antarctic continent’, the Royal Navy said.

Australia works closely with the UK on most issues in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, a point that our agreement recognises. Such documents aren’t confined to the Commonwealth: we’ve got different scale agreements with a number of countries, ranging from exchange of letters through to memoranda of understanding. Countries include New Zealand, the UK, Russia, Argentina, the US, France, China and others. They’re expressions of intent and good will with no binding obligations. But they serve a useful purpose in sharing costs, prioritising activities and ensuring that an Antarctic operator gets support when they need it.

As far as living marine resources in the Southern Ocean are concerned, there’s been several positive developments. Last month, Spanish police arrested six people suspected of running an operation that illegally fished over 3,500 tons of toothfish, a protected species, in Antarctic waters. Another 16 people have been put under investigation as part of the operation carried out jointly with Interpol. The ring is estimated to have made a profit of over $11.3 million per season from the illegal fishing operation.

In February, the internationally-wanted toothfish poaching vessel, Kunlun, was detained in Senegal. The Kunlun is believed to have links to a Spanish crime syndicate, and had previously falsified its registry, claiming Indonesia as its flag state, which allowed the vessel to be detained on formalities regarding its certification and flag status. In March, authorities in Indonesia sunk the last of the “Bandit 6” toothfish poaching vessels, the Viking, in Pangandaran, West Java. 

On a local note, Austral Fisheries, a West Australian seafood company that catches toothfish and icefish in Australia’s sub-Antarctic waters, was recently certified as the first carbon neutral fisheries business in the world.

In terms of other nations’ activities in Antarctica, several developments are worth noting. China’s State Oceanic Administration said in February that it’ll establish an air service team for Antarctic exploration. The SOA didn’t provide details, other than stating that seeks to support China’s scientific operations in Antarctica. A Chinese firm also started constructing Brazil’s replacement base in Antarctica, at a cost of US$99.6 million.

Turkey’s now cooperating with another established Antarctic Treaty Consultative Party at an existing station. Turkey and Ukraine are embracing each other as good friends that share a tense relationship with Russia, and now Turkey has sent its first expedition to Antarctica, using Ukraine’s Antarctic base. Turkey plans to build its own permanent station later this year.

Russia has showed an increased interest in Antarctica. In December, for example, Russia’s first meteorite expedition left for Antarctica to search for traces of meteorite substances. More interesting was The Washington Post report that observed that ‘even the penguins were curious’ when the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church visited Russia’s Bellingshausen Base wearing a parka and rubber boots, along with his traditional black robes. Kirill’s sojourn in the Antarctic was splashed across Russian media at a time when Russia’s been expanding its presence in Antarctica. In January the Russian navy was back in Antarctica after 33 years, undertaking hydrographic survey work.

Russia has been improving its Antarctic research stations and constructing new research vessels for both Arctic and Antarctic operations. ‘Seeing that in the last few years there have been many new developments with regard to Antarctica, this has become a very important region for Russia,’ Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said last July in the context of Russia’s new maritime doctrine.

In a forthcoming book, Antarctica: The Battle for the Seventh Continent, Doaa Abdel-Motaal, argues that that the Antarctic treaty is unlikely to be adequate in the face of competition for resources and that it has been Antarctica’s harsh climate and isolation that’s protected the continent so far, not the treaty. She argues that revisiting the treaty in favor of an orderly division of the continent is the best plan for avoiding conflict.

Whether one agrees with this judgement or not, it’s certainly the case that Antarctica is likely to become more geopolitically contested in the future. (Also see this article for some excellent photos of life on base in Antarctica).

That’s why it’d be useful for the Turnbull government to formally respond to the recommendations of the 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan, handed to the government a year ago by Tony Press, a former Director of the Australian Antarctic Division.