Mar 10, 2024 - Science

Antarctic ambitions are reshaping critical science at the pole

Illustration of an globe made of ice with cracks in it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Expanding Antarctic ambitions, coupled with the impact of the pandemic and geopolitics, are reshaping science at the planet's southern pole.

Why it matters: Scientific research has for decades guided the governance of Antarctica, offering access to scientific frontiers and a say in the course of the continent. But as countries grow their presence on Antarctica, a wider range of politics and goals is intersecting with polar science.

Driving the news: China opened its fifth research station on Antarctica last month, the country's latest move as it expands its presence and influence on the continent.

  • The station's location south of Australia has raised concerns among some analysts that it could be used for intelligence gathering from U.S. allies.
  • Others argue there are places far more suited to that task. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty prohibits using the continent for military purposes.
  • Iran recently claimed it has "property rights in the South Pole" and plans to "carry out military and scientific work" on the continent.

How it works: The treaty emphasized non-militarization and peaceful purposes on the continent, which were "purposefully reinforced by the prioritization of scientific research and cooperation," says Marigold Black of Norfolk Advisory. She is a co-author of a RAND report about Antarctic geopolitics published last year.

  • But today, scientific research in Antarctica is being used "to assert legitimacy ... and as a tool to gain a 'right to speak' in regional affairs," she says.
  • There's a myth that Antarctica is isolated from politics but "politics is just done through science," says science historian Peder Roberts of the University of Stavanger in Norway and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

The big picture: Antarctica is governed by consensus by 12 signatories of the treaty as well as other consultative parties that "conduct substantial scientific research" on the continent, each effectively having veto power.

  • Climate change, astronomy, geology, oceanography, marine biology and other research take place at 70 research stations run by 29 different countries on the continent.
  • "Science and scientific collaboration have been recognized as a key raison d'être for human presence in the Antarctic and are considered to represent the currency of Antarctic diplomacy," Daniela Liggett, a social scientist and professor at Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury | Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha in Christchurch, New Zealand, and her colleagues write in a new paper.

Zoom in: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted scientific research on Antarctica in several ways the researchers detail in Science Advances.

  • The pandemic put a pause on international station inspections and monitoring. Governance meetings and decisions were also canceled or punted.
  • It also delayed scientific research by several years, leaving a gap in scientific knowledge that is used to inform governance of the continent, they write.
  • Yes, but: It wasn't all bad news for science. There was increased data-sharing, remote mentoring and online — and more accessible — conferences, Liggett says.

Zoom out: Pandemic impacts were coupled with other pressures on Antarctic science — climate change, increased tourism, and "a broader range of interests and motivations" by countries, which posed challenges to governing by consensus, they write. There are also:

  • Geopolitical tensions: Russia's invasion of Ukraine added more stress to the system. Both have a vote under the treaty.
  • China's growing influence: China and Russia, which has operated stations on Antarctica since the 1950s, have in recent years blocked the establishment of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. China didn't support the designation of emperor penguins as a special protected species.
  • Protectionism is also raising concerns about reducing cooperation on Antarctica, the authors write.

What they're saying: "China's new Antarctic station is built and operated in full compliance with international rules and procedures," Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., told Axios in a statement.

  • China is a consultative party to the treaty, and its "activities are consistent with the stipulations of the Antarctic Treaty System," Liu added.

A key concern on Antarctica is dual-use technologies that can be used for scientific research as well as military activities.

  • For example, ground stations that provide communications and can be used to position reconnaissance satellites also support scientific research and are acceptable under the treaty, former Australian government analyst Claire Young recently wrote. China, the U.S., Norway and others have ground stations on Antarctica.
  • Young and others argue inspections allowed under the treaty are the best means for verifying military activities aren't taking place on Antarctica.
  • "Just because something is dual use doesn't necessarily mean that that use is a necessary consequence," Roberts says, noting the U.S.S.R. for many years didn't want Norway to build a runway in Svalbard in the Arctic because it could support military operations.
  • But at its core, "the Antarctic Treaty is also a form of security agreement," Black says, adding that attention needs to be paid to potential military activities on Antarctica.

What to watch: If research continues to be the ticket to prestige in Antarctica and more research means a louder voice, states are going to build infrastructure and maintain scientific programs, Roberts says.

  • That could mean more sophisticated science is done on Antarctica.
  • It could "potentially also have an arms race effect," he says.
  • But, "if you've got lots of people with lots of expensive kits and lots of support staff, the chance they will be able to do lots of good science improves."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Roberts' second affiliation, the University of Stavanger in Norway.

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