Antarctica: the object of geopolitical competition and scientific endeavour

March 8, 2022
Antarctica Image: Pixabay

The Australian government has announced a funding package of $804 million, over the next decade, to increase Australia’s strategic and scientific activities in Antarctica.

While the funding will be beneficial to science, it cannot be denied that geopolitical considerations are behind it.

We normally think of Antarctica as a pristine, if icy, wilderness. However, we cannot ignore the accumulation of 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. We have an ethical and legal responsibility to clean up this waste.

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 United States operated the McMurdo research station and 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 site. The waste was relocated to the US. This kind of substantial environmental remediation will be ever more necessary if economic footprints are allowed to increase.

Geopolitical competition

Australia has had a presence in Antarctica for decades, and is no novice 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 four research stations in Antarctica – and claimed approximately 42% of the continent’s landmass.

Many nations — including the former Soviet Union — were involved in a flurry of scientific activity in Antarctica in the late 1950s. The Australian government at the time responded with commentary casting suspicion on the motives of its Cold War opponent. Media commentators and politicians asked if military motivations were behind Soviet actions in the Antarctic.

Security concerns became the rationale for an increase in Australia’s Antarctic activities. Then Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, 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, cheered the financial commitment by Canberra as a step in fighting the Cold War against China.

In an article for The Guardian, Kieren Pender wrote that Cold War politics and science have coexisted in an uneasy relationship: “Australian efforts in Antarctica ... 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 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 obvious military capabilities.

Warming oceans

We have all seen the documentaries about Antarctica’s melting 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 which 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.

Urgent action to reduce the impact of anthropogenic climate change should take priority over short term military and geopolitical interests.

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