It is utterly absurd that as the federal government announced its purchase of more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles there are moves afoot to prune and cut projects conducted by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).
Division head Emma Campbell sent an email to all staff on July 10, claiming that the AAD “won’t be able to afford” all current positions. Since then, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) has given a flimsy assurance that no jobs will be lost.
“The focus will be on finding areas where work performed by those on fixed-term contracts can be incorporated into the work of ongoing staff,” said a department spokesperson.
This is odd given the Scott Morrison government’s promise to spend an additional $804.4 million over a decade for scientific capabilities and research specific to Antarctic interests.
Unfortunately, that undertaking included $3.4 million to “enhance Australia’s international engagement to support the rules and norms of the Antarctic Treaty system and promote Australia’s leadership in Antarctic affairs”.
Australia’s long-standing obsession with claiming 42% of the Antarctic continues to remain unrecognised by other states. But it has meant that any exploration, or claims by others, are bound to be seen as threats.
The People’s Republic of China built its fifth research station base in 2021, in Australia’s Antarctic environs, sparking concerns that Beijing may be less interested in the science than other potentially rich offerings. They are hardly the only ones.
The AAD, however, has shifted its focus to identifying necessary savings, amounting to 16% of the annual budget — a crude, spreadsheet exercise that can only harm the organisation’s research element.
As Campbell’s staff-wide email went on to declare, a review of the future season plan is also being pursued, along with the concern about a “budget situation [that] has made the three-year plan process harder than expected”.
A spokesperson for DCCEEW claimed that the resulting $25 million difference in funding could be put down to the planning difficulties around the new $328 million Antarctic icebreaker, the Nuyina. Few could have been surprised that the process resulted in delays, leading to the AAD to seek alternative shipping options.
What proved surprising to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government was that there had been “no cuts to the [AAD] at all”. Catherine King went on to say that the government had not altered administering “the $804 million budget that is there for the Antarctic Division. There are no cuts, we’re a bit perplexed as to where this story has come from.”
The difference between Canberra’s assumption of reliable finance and delivery has not translated into the individual funding choices made by Australia’s southern research stations. Nature reported that two of Australia’s permanent research stations — Mawson and Davis — will not be staffed to full capacity over the summer.
The implication for such a budget cut will have one logical consequence. As Jan Zika, a climate scientist working at the University of New South Wales reasoned: “When someone says there’s a cut to the AAD, it basically means less science, less understanding of what’s going on.”
Zika said this was “catastrophic” given the changes to the sea ice under study. “We’re seeing so little sea ice relative to what we normally see at this time of the year.”
Such gaps in data collection would also be “catastrophic” to scientific and ecological understanding. “If we have data up to a certain date, and then we have a gap for three years, five years, and then we start to get the data again, it doesn’t make it useless. But it makes it really hard for us to get that understanding that we need.”
Zika is correct about the sea ice findings. Data gathered by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center showed on June 27 that the sea ice enveloping Antarctica was a record winter low of 11.7 million square kilometres: that is more than 2.5 million square kilometres below the average for the time between 1981 and 2010.
Other researchers, notably those who collaborate with the AAD, fear the impeding effects of budget cuts. Christian Haas, a sea-ice specialist at the Alfred Wegener Institute of the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany sees this as inevitable.
Nathan Bindoff of the University of Tasmania, who specialises in physical oceanography, has also suggested that such funding cuts would delay investigative procedures with irreversible effect. “We’re probably going to be too late to address some of these questions.”
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]