Disruption over Macquarie Island calls for some clever Antarctic thinking

Photo via AAP/Paul Carter

Last week, the Australian Antarctic Division announced that they would close Macquarie Island research station by the end of March 2017, before backtracking on Friday and suggesting that the station could be reprieved. Polar Research and Policy Initiative Expert Indi Hodgson-Johnston looks at this decision. This piece was first published on September 18th in The Conversation. For the original article, see here.

The fate of the Australian Antarctic Division’s research base on Macquarie Island hangs in the balance, after last week’s surprise announcement that it would close in March 2017 was followed on Friday by a suggestion that the government could yet reprieve it.

Why all the fuss over a scattering of buildings on a windswept island (admittedly a UNESCO World Heritage-listed one) perched on a tectonic ridge halfway between Australia and Antarctica?

Macquarie Island is the perfect natural laboratory for scientific research. Unique climate, geological, biological and astronomical measurements are collected year-round. The data is fed into many large-scale, international science programs and reports, including those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It is something of an anomaly in Australia’s national Antarctic program. Unlike Heard Island, Macquarie Island lies outside the areas covered by the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The Tasmanian government manages the island.

The buildings at the island’s north end are home to research infrastructure and accommodation for various organisations. These include the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which monitors the Southern Ocean for evidence of nuclear events. These buildings are increasingly exposed to ocean inundation.

Death by a thousand cuts

Collaborations of this nature are common in Antarctic science. Budgetary decisions made in one section of the community have a direct impact on the programs of others.

This sudden closure announcement followed the harrowing CSIRO job cuts announcement earlier this year. Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, the Tasmanian and Antarctic science community and the Australian Greens understandably responded with dismay to last Tuesday’s announcement.

While funding to Australia’s Antarctic science program seemed assured with the long-awaited Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20-Year Action Plan this year, there is a reasonable correlation between previous successive cuts to the Antarctic program and the disrepair of Australian Antarctic infrastructure. Labor Senator Lisa Singh called this a “death of a thousand cuts”.

Competing interests

Given the huge scale of Australia’s interests in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, there will always be competing budget priorities.

Environmental contamination from long-term human habitation, for example, is an issue common to Australia’s research infrastructure throughout the Antarctic region.

Any research in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic must be done in a way that minimises the direct impact on the surrounding environment. Australian Antarctic Division director Nick Gales has cited the footprint of this research as one reason for withdrawal from Macquarie Island.

Environmentally sensitive replacements suited to such harsh and remote conditions are expensive. The ongoing remediation work on many old Antarctic and sub-Antarctic bases continues to cause further budgetary and logistical headaches.

Macquarie Island, Heard Island and Australia’s Antarctic Territory are notoriously difficult to access, particularly for long-term, logistically demanding tasks such as major remediation and refurbishment works. Access involves battling the increasingly unpredictable sea ice and ice airstrip conditions that already disrupt delicate resupply, search and rescue, and medical evacuation operations.

Given its position deep in the Southern Ocean, there remains a strong case for a small but permanent presence on Macquarie Island. For example, resident climate scientists have collected weekly ozone measurements for 20 years. There is a place for other Commonwealth departments, the Tasmanian government, private industry and research institutions to shoulder responsibility for maintaining this presence.

A silver lining for Tasmania?

Given successive budget cuts, precariously short-term funding of Antarctic research programs, the potential domino effect of budget cuts between collaborators and the doubt created within the community by the CSIRO climate job cuts saga, Tasmania needs to continue to build its capacity to ride out the vagaries of the federal political issues that have left it reeling over the past year.

Regardless of the current station’s fate, this could be seen as an opportunity for Tasmania’s Antarctic, climate and oceans science community to collaborate and innovate with various industries to ensure that crucial climate research and observations can continue.

By leveraging from existing programs such as the Antarctic Gateway Partnership, and with world-class scientific expertise, Tasmania is perfectly poised to innovate and invest in the areas of remote and autonomous scientific instruments, technology and data handling.

Private enterprise, including smaller non-icebreaking vessels that already operate as research and tourism platforms in the sub-Antarctic, also has a chance to fill the logistical gap.

The closure of the Macquarie Island station after almost 70 years would be sad and shocking for the generations of scientists who fondly visited “Macca”.

The continuation of a presence on the island, however, is largely a Tasmanian government responsibility. With innovation and collaboration, Tasmania can lead the way in a new, stable and less environmentally damaging era of science on Macquarie Island.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston serves as Expert – Antarctic Law and Policy at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is currently completing her PhD in international law at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Australia.
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