More than a century ago explorers went to Antarctica for their king and country. But national interests were put on ice when the Antarctic treaty defined Antarctica as a scientific sanctuary. Today countries again try to assert greater influence on the continent for the days when the treaty expires and for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now. The Australia Antarctic Division, which oversees Australia's strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in the region, has suffered a series of budget cuts in recent years. However, this month it was announced that the Australian government will be investing $2.167 billion over the next ten years to enhance Australia’s Antarctic logistics and science capabilities including the construction of a brand new icebreaker.

L-R: Antarctic Division Director Dr Nick Gales, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the scale model of Australia’s new icebreaker. (Photo: Jenni Klaus)
L-R: Antarctic Division Director Dr Nick Gales, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the scale model of Australia’s new icebreaker. (Photo: Jenni Klaus)

A new era of Australian Antarctic engagement was announced this month by Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt MP, with the launch of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. The Government is providing funding of $2.167 billion including ongoing additional funding of $200 million over 10 years, which will provide long-term certainty for the Australian Antarctic programme.

The front page of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.
The front page of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.

The key components of the Action Plan include a state-of-the-art icebreaker for research and resupply, new funding to support an active Australian Antarctic programme and to restore the capability for deep-field science traverses. Furthermore the plan makes provisions to scope options for a year-round aviation access between Hobart and Antarctica (see PolarNEWS article March 15, 2016), it aims to strengthen the Antarctic Treaty system and to enhance Hobart as an Antarctic research hub and the premier Gateway to East Antarctica. The Australian Government has also signed a contract for Australia’s new icebreaker. The new, custom-built ship will be faster, larger, stronger and offer increased endurance compared with the ageing Aurora Australis, which has been sailing the Southern Ocean since 1989.

The old icebreaker Aurora Australis which has been servicing the Australian bases since 1980 can be seen here at sunset close to Casey Station (Photo: Katja Riedel)
The old icebreaker Aurora Australis which has been servicing the Australian bases since 1980 can be seen here at sunset close to Casey Station (Photo: Katja Riedel)

The new icebreaker will deliver the science needed for the responsible management of Southern Ocean fisheries and ecosystem focused conservation, particularly of Antarctic krill – the keystone species and foundation of the Southern Ocean ecosystem. The custom built ship is due to arrive in Australia in mid-2020. The total investment is over $1.912 billion, with $529 million being invested in the capital cost of the icebreaker, and $1.38 billion to be spent on operations and maintenance over its 30 year lifespan.

A graphic of the new Australian icebreaker in the ice (Image: Damen/DMS Maritime/Knud E Hansen A/S)
A graphic of the new Australian icebreaker in the ice (Image: Damen/DMS Maritime/Knud E Hansen A/S)

Restoring the capability to undertake deep-field overland science traverses and to improve the mobile research station infrastructure is essential for Australia’s involvement in major Antarctic research projects, including the quest for a million year-old ice core. This landmark investment into overland traverse capabilities, combined with work towards a greater aviation capability will offer Australia’s Antarctic programme unprecedented access to and across East Antarctica.

At home the Australian and Tasmanian governments will continue to enhance Tasmania’s status as a global Antarctic research hub and the premier Gateway to East Antarctica. A big push will come from the expansion of infrastructure in Hobart to accommodate the new icebreaker.

The challenges of operating in the world’s most extreme and unforgiving environment, here an Adelie penguin during a snow storm, remain constant and require commitment to ongoing funding and improvement. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
The challenges of operating in the world’s most extreme and unforgiving environment, here an Adelie penguin during a snow storm, remain constant and require commitment to ongoing funding and improvement. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

The investment delivered through the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan will assure Australia's ability to lead science and influence responsible management in Antarctica and to collaborate even more closely with other countries on scientific research.

Source: Australian Antarctic Division (AAD)