Antarctica – the object of geopolitical competition and scientific endeavour

The Australian government has announced a funding package of 804 million dollars, over the next decade, to increase Australia’s presence and activities in Antarctica. While there are definite scientific goals and benefits to increasing Australia’s existing commitments to Antarctica, it cannot be denied that geopolitical considerations were foremost in motivating the Morrison government’s Antarctic policies.

Cleaning up historical waste

We normally think of Antarctica as a pristine, if icy, wilderness – and that is fine. However, we cannot ignore the accumulation of historical pollutants and wastage on that continent as a result of military and scientific activities. The historic Australian Wilkes research station, abandoned in 1969 due to its burial under snow and ice, is estimated to have 20,000 cubic metres of waste still in its tip – including old batteries, dead dogs, leaking oil drums and abandoned food.

If we create all this waste, we have an ethical and legal responsibility to clean it up. In fact, Australia signed up to the Madrid Protocol, an environmental annex to the Antarctic treaty system. This protocol, which came into effect in 1998, establishes ecological considerations when planning and implementing Antarctic activities. Mining in Antarctica is expressly prohibited.

The American operated McMurdo research station (you may find a map here) used a nuclear reactor for its power requirements from 1961 until 1972. It took seven years to remove the 12,000 tonnes of contaminated rock to clean up the place. The waste was relocated to the United States. This kind of substantial environmental remediation will be ever more necessary if economic footprints are allowed to increase in Antarctica.

Geopolitical competition

Australia has had a presence in Antarctica for decades, and is no noice to geopolitical competition. Since the International Geophysical Year 1957-58, which brought together the best scientific minds working in the earth sciences, Australia has established research stations in Antarctica – and claimed approximately 42 percent of the continent’s landmass as its own.

In the late 1950s, numerous nations began a flurry of scientific activity in Antarctica – one of them being the Soviet Union. The Australian government at the time responded with commentary casting suspicion on the motives of our Cold War opponent – what are the Russians up to? Media commentators and politicians asked if military motivations underlie Soviet actions in the Antarctic.

Security concerns was the rationale deployed by successive Australian governments to increase Antarctic activity. Richard Casey, the external affairs minister in the 1950s, wondered aloud whether the Soviets would be able to rain missiles on Sydney or Melbourne. These concerns circulated in the media without a shred of evidence – in 1955, the Australian Defence Committee concluded that even if the Soviets had aggressive designs on Australia, it was hardly likely the Russians would attack from Antarctica.

In its most recent announcement regarding Antarctica, the Morrison government made references to the possible incursions of rival powers into Antarctica. While the government did not mention Russia or China by name, media outlets, such as the Australian Financial Review, loudly cheered the financial commitment by Canberra as a step in fighting the Cold War against China.

Kieren Pender, writing in The Guardian, notes that Cold War politics and science have coexisted in an uneasy relationship. He writes that:

Australian efforts in Antarctica therefore always serve a dual purpose: promoting science and conservation while maintaining some degree of involvement across the Australian Antarctic Territory, lest the treaty system ever dissolve.

That is interesting, because the Morrison government made clear that this funding commitment was aimed at strengthening our ‘leadership’ in Antarctica – mostly by way of building drones and inland traversing technologies, which have clear military capabilities.

Warming oceans

We have all seen the documentaries regarding the melting of Antarctica’s ice sheets and glaciers, accelerated by human-induced global warming. This will result in a cascading series of adverse impacts on the ecology of the Southern Ocean. The latter, also known as the Antarctic Ocean, surrounds the Antarctic continent, and contains a diverse marine ecosystem.

As the oceans warm, the ability of the marine life to survive in those ecosystems will erode. The Antarctic krill, a tiny crustacean that lives in the Southern ocean, is physically small – about six centimetres in length. However, their importance in the marine ecosystem is huge. Numbering in the millions, they constitute the food basis for whales and other species. The krill depends on a delicate balance of food and temperature.

As the phytoplankton, the microscopic plant organisms on which the krill depends, decrease in the warming oceans, the krill migrate further southwards. The growth habitat of the krill gradually contracts, and the adverse repercussions will cascade throughout the marine ecosystem.

The urgency of action on reducing the impact of anthropogenic climate change should take priority over short term military and geopolitical interests.

One thought on “Antarctica – the object of geopolitical competition and scientific endeavour

  1. I honestly believe humans are screwed, between corporate greed and what seems to be a rising tide of anti-science beliefs. Hopefully I’ll be dead before Ragnarok arrives.

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