Antarctic logistics—in for the long haul?
14 May 2013|

Guest editor Anthony BerginResearchers studying penguins while voyaging aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis.Australia made its last significant new investment in Antarctic logistic capability during the Howard government years, when we funded an intercontinental air capability in the form of a commercial Airbus A319 flying from Hobart to an ice runway in Antarctica.

This was the first time a commercial wheeled jet aircraft had been licensed to fly to and land in Antarctica. The construction of Australia’s research and resupply icebreaker Aurora Australis in Newcastle (Australia) and a station rebuilding program in the 1980s were the previous major investments in Antarctic logistics.

Almost a decade after funding the Antarctic airlink, two fundamental budget issues are combining to potentially cripple Australia’s Antarctic efforts. The first is that Aurora Australis is reaching the end of its life. It will need to be replaced within a few years. And a replacement vessel(s) for Aurora Australis won’t be cheap.

The second budget issue is the steady erosion of base funding through the imposition of efficiency dividends and other budget savings. When the budget is tight, keeping the people safe and the stations resupplied and operating will always trump a marine research project or a deep-field ice core drilling program, no matter how important they might be. This year, for example, the internationally significant sea-ice research expedition to Antarctica, SIPEX 2, was only able to proceed with additional funds from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

The relentless erosion of core capacity, in the absence of a fundamental rebasing, runs the risk of re-creating a ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’s hospital‘ in Antarctica: three research stations and a marine science capability, but no means to fund and support real or relevant scientific activity in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

But Australia’s Antarctic efforts should be supported to a level that matches Australia’s interest as a claimant of 42% of the continent, and as a leading nation in Antarctic and southern ocean science.

So what should Australia’s Antarctic logistic capabilities look like in the years to come?

  • A replacement for Aurora Australis needs to be commissioned in the next few years—keeping Aurora on the water beyond its design life will be both expensive and inefficient. A new ship (or ships) must be capable of breaking ice for both resupply and science and have fit-for-purpose cargo capacity and science capability. Australia shouldn’t be tardy in making this decision, or it runs the risk of losing its own essential ice-breaking capability like the US did a decade ago, and become hostage to an unpredictable and expensive supply chain.
  • Continued intercontinental air transport capability: While the use of the A319 has demonstrated the importance of intercontinental air transport to a modern Antarctic program, the reliance on a single ice runway near Casey station has proven limitations. It’s time to seriously explore options for additional capabilities. These could include the use of long range ski-equipped aircraft, if they were available, landing at each of the Australia’s research stations, or the construction of another ice runway inland from Davis station. These or similar options would provide a kind of logistic hub and spoke operating from Hobart.
  • Deep field logistic capabilities: For Australia to play a leading role in significant research efforts such as the drilling of a million year old ice core in Antarctica (a real game-changer in understanding past climate), it will need to be able to operate far from its coastal stations. To do this efficiently Australia needs the logistic capability to conduct overland traverses, and access to the deep field with ski equipped aircraft.

International cooperation is key to future logistics and science in the Antarctic. The bottom line is that Antarctic logistics are both necessary and expensive. Collaborating with other nations in the movement of personnel, supplies and science will be necessary in a fiscally constrained global economy. Being able to provide leadership and build collaborative logistics should be an underpinning ambition of Australia’s Antarctic efforts.

It’s also time to think hard about the role of Australia’s military capabilities in the logistics arena. Antarctica is demilitarised by virtue of the Antarctic Treaty, but that doesn’t constrain the use of military logistics to support science in the Antarctic—many nations do this. However, the use of military logistics might be an inhibiter for other nations to join with us in Antarctic science. The alternative would be to develope a greater role for private commercial support for our Antarctic logistic requirements. These options should be investigated in developing our logistic options.

In developing Australia’s future logistic capabilities in Antarctica, it’s imperative that we have a clearly articulated view of Australia’s strategic interests in the region. If Australia wants to maintain a leading role in the critical science that’s being conducted in the Antarctic, it needs to have the capacity to do it: deep in the field, in the sea-ice zone and in the southern ocean. Our scientific capability needs the funding and the flexibility to not be bound to our coastal stations. And it needs the vision and the capacity to be involved in and lead large international efforts in Antarctic science and logistic support.

An Australian Antarctic program which struggles to make ends meet will have little to contribute to expanding international research efforts in Antarctica; we’ll become inward looking and increasingly irrelevant in our own backyard, the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Anthony Press is the CEO, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.