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Antarctic commitment has been put on ice

By Anthony Bergin

Antarctic ice made the opening of the 2020 Summit when the then governor-general, Michael Jeffery, used an 80,000-year-old core to illustrate the importance of sustainability for this and future generations.

Ice cores, such as this one retrieved by Australian scientists, are time capsules of global climate history. Now the Chinese are set to be the first to retrieve an ice core a million or more years old.

Under the Antarctic treaty there is freedom of scientific research throughout the continent and China will be undertaking its research in our Antarctic territory.

It's no small exercise. A Chinese team is about to launch an expedition into inland Antarctica to complete the first-phase construction of a research station, in the Dome A zone.

At 4083 metres above sea level, this is the highest icecap on the South Pole and it is close to the centre of the continent. It is also the coldest place on Earth, with temperatures falling as low as -82.5 degrees.

Building a research station there represents a huge logistical and human challenge. The Chinese intend for it to be a summer-only station but they will spend more than a decade upgrading it to an all-year station.

China has made a real commitment to strengthening its presence in the southern most continent. It has two other Antarctic bases, with one in Australian territory. Chinese scientists have twice ascended Dome A: there's never even been an official Australian expedition to this remote inland area.

Other nations such as the US, Russia, France and Italy also have far superior capacity to penetrate Australia's Antarctic territory and they do.

Australia claims sovereignty over 42 per cent of Antarctica - an area about the size of this country, minus Queensland. Our claim has traditionally been backed by a level of scientific activity and occupation unmatched by other states.

But we are now starting to be left behind. This is a concern because science is the currency of Antarctic influence. Under the Antarctic treaty, the results of any research are shared but there are risks to Australia if our commitment to Antarctica is seen to be softening.

Our sovereign claim, the largest of all countries, isn't recognised by most states.

Australia has national interests at stake in Antarctica. A protocol to the Antarctic treaty bans mineral exploitation but it would be naive to assume that in a world short of energy and resources the ban may not at some point be lifted. If there is a scramble for Antarctic resources, Australia will want to be in the best position to influence developments.

We also have a very real interest in protecting the Australian Antarctic environment and our fisheries resources in the Southern Ocean. We should also want to be at the cutting edge of scientific research for what it can tell us about climate change and sustainability.

Our ability to shape Antarctic affairs requires a long-term, robust commitment to the frozen continent.

But our modest $100 million Antarctic budget hasn't been increased for some years.

In contrast, China and Russia have increased their commitment to research and India is in the process of establishing a station in our territory. Australia is increasingly being outdone by others.

If we could increase the Antarctic budget by the equivalent of one joint strike fighter jet (the Government is planning to buy up to 100 planes for about $15 billion) we could do so much more.

The recently opened airlink between Hobart and Antarctica (Wilkins near Casey base) has improved our logistic capacity and boosted our standing in the Antarctic treaty system.

But we still don't have the infrastructure to move our scientists and others deep into the continent. We should double our intra-continental aircraft capacity, build another inter-continental ice runway and use one of the Australian Defence Force's four new C-17 Globemasters for Antarctic logistics.

It's our territory; we should be able to cover it but we can't.

This should be a part of a broader, strategic approach to Antarctica, expanding both our presence in continent and in international bodies focused on Antarctic affairs.

Our national Antarctic efforts are run on a shoestring relative to other nationally significant activities that affect our future security.

Antarctic ice made a good prop at the 2020 Summit but the continent and its potential to Australia didn't get a mention in the report. It's time for a visionary "Look South" policy with serious funding to match.

Dr Anthony Bergin is co-author of Frozen Assets: Securing Australia's Antarctic Future, Australian Strategic Policy Institute 2007.

Originally published by: Sydney Morning Herald on 04 Nov 2008