Antarctic science: past achievements, future visions

Over the past seven years, changes in the Australian Antarctic programme have reflected its increasing focus on the Government’s goals in Antarctica.

A number of major new scientific research programmes have resulted, including those run through the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), which has the ambitious objective of linking changes in the physical environment of the Southern Ocean to its biological productivity. Already, research within the CRC — which replaced the Antarctic and Southern Ocean CRC in 2003 — has revealed that the deep waters of the Southern Ocean are changing more quickly than we previously thought. Another major CRC programme on the Amery Ice Shelf aims to understand the dynamics of heat exchange between the ocean, ice and atmosphere.

The AAD’s Human Impacts programme has established strong and effective links with the University of Melbourne and other collaborators, and instituted a solid programme of research at Casey station and on Macquarie Island. The work focuses on the remediation of contaminated soils, and assesses the consequences of pollution run-off into the marine environment. The Canadian Government is interested in the outcomes of this research and is now a partner in the work.

Australia’s growing influence within the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was recognised with the establishment of a dedicated science programme — Southern Ocean Ecosystems — which now takes a strong leadership role in the deliberations of CCAMLR. Major field studies have included a survey of the foraging ranges and diet of the land-based predators in the Heard Island and McDonald Island Marine Reserve. This year, programme scientists completed a krill survey of the ocean from 30 to 80 degrees east. The results of this survey, together with those from a 1996 survey, will describe krill distribution and abundance across the whole of CCAMLR’s statistical areas — 58.4.1 and 58.4.2 (Australian Antarctic Magazine 8: 12).

With the passing of responsibility for international whale policy issues to the AAD, a programme in cetacean biology was developed within Southern Ocean Ecosystems. While the programme is still in its infancy, great strides have been made in the development of molecular biology techniques for the identification of whale diet from faecal analysis, and in the use of passive sonar for estimation of whale stocks. Australia has a high profile in the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific and Conservation Committees, and strongly supports the Commissioner’s role.

The most significant study undertaken with considerable outside support was a major geophysical expedition in 2002–03 to the southern Prince Charles Mountains (Australian Antarctic Magazine 5: 2–7). The expedition, conducted in collaboration with the German Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaft und Rohstoffe, resulted in the mapping of the Gamburtsev Mountains which lie under the ice cap.

The future of our Antarctic science programme looks equally ambitious. The introduction of the inter-continental air service offers many opportunities for the science programme to increase participation by Australian and international scientists. Long periods of sea time will be eliminated, making research in Antarctica more attractive to busy scientists than it is today. The AAD’s Science Branch is currently developing a ‘Bold New Vision’ for its future which will make best use of the inter- and intra-continental flight opportunities, and establish new foci for research.

Some crystal ball gazing suggests that our work will increasingly be multi-disciplinary and collaborative, drawing on financial and scientific resources outside those provided by the Australian Government. The days of ‘going it alone’ are over for most of Australia’s research institutes. Australia’s programme in Antarctic science is already the fifth most collaborative in the world — a position we will try to improve upon in the next decade. The introduction of a new funding framework for the European Union (EU) science programme (for 2007–2013) will encourage increased international collaboration within the EU, and between EU consortia and other nations. Opportunities exist for our strong links with European scientists to flourish, and to bring in the new resources we will need for major projects.

The future will see continual refinement of our scientific focus to support the policy objectives of Government. Currently these are in the broad fields of environmental protection, marine ecosystem sustainability and climate science. As the AAD’s resources are unlikely to increase significantly, scientists in the ‘non-priority’ areas of science will have to find sources of cash to pay for field and other support. Emphasis on marine science will probably increase over the coming decades as the Southern Ocean becomes increasingly attractive as a source of animal protein for the world’s human population, and as climate change bites into economies around the world.

The Australian Government is likely to maintain its interest in the conservation and sustainable management of its marine resources, and the resources in international waters. It may also be increasingly concerned about past human footprints in Antarctica, given the requirements for nations to clean up old work sites and rehabilitate damaged land. If tourism continues to grow at its present rate, there will be calls for us to understand its impacts and consequences on Antarctica’s environment, and take preventive measures before damage is apparent.

The future will be exciting and challenging. Australia must seize the opportunities the air service into Casey will offer, to bring more of the outside scientific world to our doorstep, and to collaborate in new ways. With the International Polar Year imminent, we must be alert to new collaborative opportunities afforded by the big research efforts that will be undertaken, and so continue to secure our place among our peers as a leading nation in the execution of science in Antarctica.