A frozen continent. Another potential frontier for conflict and competition. Antarctica is a part of the world where the real politician meets the scientist; the desire to find exploitable resources responds to environmental expectations and fears. Countries have fought over their little slice of ice, sometimes citing reasons of scientific collaboration, and often national interest. Much of this culminated in the creation of the Antarctic Treaty system, comprising four major international agreements beginning with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and ending with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection in Antarctic Treaty.
During the Cold War it became an Area of Exceptional Interest. The United States and other partners eyed the Soviet Union, which they wanted to exclude from any regulatory regime. In 1950, the Soviet government made it clear that such opposition would be futile; that would be part of those negotiations.
Riding the wave of scientific research as part of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), on the initiative of many international organizations, the Soviets created the Mirny laboratory on February 13, 1956. This immediately caused unease among the various participants, in particular the Australians, who had asserted a claim – not recognized by international law – on a good part of East Antarctica in 1933.
Editorials and warning notices have multiplied. A piece in Sydney The Herald of the Sun wondered if the Russians would “leave Mirny to the penguins after 1959” or stay. The advertiser considered the Soviet mission “a potential threat to Australian security”.
Fears have also circulated about the possible establishment of missile and submarine bases. This was despite the conclusion of an Australian defense committee in August 1955 that “if Russia intended to attack Australia, it was unlikely to do so from Antarctica”. In 1957, External Affairs Minister Richard Casey expressed the anguish that prevailed in Canberra:[W]We don’t want the Russians setting up facilities in Antarctica from which they can drop missiles on Sydney or Melbourne”.
Scientists, as they tend to do in such endeavors, harbor mixed feelings. Strong personal relationships were forged between nationalities, including Australians and Soviets. Explorer scientist and physicist Keith Mather, after a visit to the Mirny station, recalled a standard, boozy gathering among colleagues. “They have a very appropriate expression in Russian which means ‘I’ll join you under the table’. That’s where we made our best friends.”
The eventual response to Soviet intentions, and a rationale since used by other powers interested in the South Pole, was given by Soviet delegate Boris Dzerdzeyevsky to the Third Special Committee for Antarctic Research:[a]As long as there is a need for scientific investigation, the Soviet expedition will be in Antarctica”.
For Australia’s political establishment, the continent is a huge problem and a unique opportunity, even if Canberra has exaggerated its own contributions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of increased funding for the Antarctic effort came with much fanfare. In a government press release, the government promised to “send a clear international signal of Australia’s global leadership in Antarctica with an investment of $804.4 million over the next ten years to strengthen our strategic capabilities and scientists in the region.
Picking up the usual voice of the failed advertising executive, Morrison suggested the package would help things never been done before. “The money we are investing in fleets of drones, helicopters and other vehicles will allow us to explore areas of the interior of East Antarctica that no country has ever been able to reach before. .”
There would be continued support for ‘our world-class scientists and expeditionaries […] because their research on the frozen continent and the Southern Ocean is critically important to Australia’s future. But there would also be – and here the election incentives ring true – benefits for Tasmania, which Foreign Secretary Marise Payne has described as “an international center of science”.
Scientists can certainly expect to receive some of the funding, even if it is obviously tied to politics. A new krill aquarium will be established in Hobart. Icebreaker RSV Nuyina can expect “additional navigational support” to help her “focus on extended scientific voyages”. But the focus on observational capability and transportation is unmistakable, including $136.6 million for interior traverse capability, mapping activities, and “mobile stations” and $109 million “to augment air and inland capacity”.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley gave a better sense of the broader political motivations behind this increase in funding. The threat posed by other powers always lurks in the fine print. “We must ensure that Antarctica remains a place of science and conservation, free from conflict and protected from exploitation.” By investing in science, Ley said, Australia was showing a “commitment to our sovereignty in the Australian Antarctic Territory and its leading voice in the region”.
For reporters, Morrison was more explicit about these other nations, foremost China, seeking to assert control of a continent that Australia had a binding commitment to protect. “Well, we are a treaty nation when it comes to Antarctica, and we take those responsibilities very seriously. Now not everyone is living up to those stewardship obligations and responsibilities. these reasons that Canberra needed to “keep its eyes on Antarctica”.
If only such sharp eyes could be better focused on environmental concerns such as the exploitation of fish stocks and other conservation measures. No mention is made by the Morrison government of China and Russia in the context of frustration with various initiatives such as the creation of vast marine protected areas or the overfishing of key krill species. Given that the Morrison government has proven itself an environmental and ecological vandal in other areas, this can hardly intrigue South Pole watchers.