Scientists have been relaying increasingly urgent warnings from Antarctica about the impact of climate change using communications technology that might have looked at home in the dial-up internet era.
But there’s a chance a fibre-optic cable might come to the continent as a spin-off of a plan by the Chilean government to lay a subsea cable between Chile, New Zealand and Australia.
The remoteness of Antarctica has meant relying on poor satellite communications and instruments that gather and transmit data in bytes or kilobytes to work out what is happening on and beneath the ice.
Craig Stewart, a marine physicist at Niwa, recalls that when he first visited Antarctica with the British Antarctic Mission about 20 years ago, the main method of communication was via emails that would come into its Rothera Research Station.
“They would just read them out over the radio and all the different field teams would hear your personal messages, it was quite hilarious.
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“There were tales of people getting break-up messages from their girlfriends just read out over HF radio.”
Technology has improved, for example with the arrival of Iridium satellite phones, but not in leaps and bounds.
Nancy Bertler, an associate professor at the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University, says the usual drawbacks of satellite communications are made worse by the extreme latitude.
“You see a lot of satellites just at the horizon so they are constantly ‘handing over’.
“When you talk you have a lag but when you transmit data that can corrupt your data set, so it is really quite challenging sending data from the continent back.
“Satellites can drop out and you have limited bandwidth.”
Scientists often have to visit sensors once a year to download data or need to do research “in very specific places”, she says.
Antarctica New Zealand spokeswoman Megan Nicholl says New Zealand’s Scott Base currently makes do with a 2 megabit-per-second satellite connection.
“It is minimal, like back in the day when you were on dial-up.”
The Chilean Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications announced in July that a US$3 million feasibility study it ordered from United States experts had recommended the Chile-Australia route to connect South America onward to Asia, and that the submarine cable go through Auckland.
But Kiwi entrepreneur Remi Galasso, founder of Auckland firm Hawaiki Cable, has been talking with Chilean officials about the possibility of a tweak to that plan.
Galasso’s hope is that the cable could be routed south of New Zealand, with him potentially investing in spurs to Invercargill to kick start a data centre industry in Southland, and to Antarctica.
Hawaiki Cable built a $445 million internet cable between New Zealand, Australia and the US in 2018, breaking Southern Cross Cable’s former monopoly on the US-New Zealand route.
It is believed one plan could see two links to Antarctica hanging off the Chilean cable – one to Scott Base and the nearby US McMurdo station, and another to Chile’s Eduardo Frei base on the Fildes Peninsula.
Nicholl says Antarctica NZ is aware of the concept and “very enthusiastic”.
“It would be amazing to have fibre into Antarctica because of what it could mean for our science,” she says.
Antarctica NZ has factored in the possibility that high-speed communications may arrive at Scott Base into its plan for the redevelopment of the station, without yet having a clear idea of how and when, she says.
“We are really keen to do anything that helps our scientists gather and dispatch information, we however also have a limited budget.”
Realistically, the prospect of any spur to Antarctica may hinge on the support of the US National Science Foundation which runs the US Antarctic programme, as well as on Chile.
The Chilean government has only just settled on Sydney, rather than China, as the final destination for its cable and its focus will be on its own economic development opportunities.
Chilean Transportation and Telecommunications Minister Gloria Hutt says the Transoceanic Cable project will open up “enormous opportunities for Chile to become a South American digital hub” by making it an attractive location for data centres and other businesses associated with the digital economy.
Its next steps will be an engineering study and raising finance for the cable, which will involve sharing information with banks and investments funds that had shown interest in the project, the ministry said in a statement.
But already some consideration has been given to the practicalities of running a spur into one of the most hostile regions on Earth.
Even with a two-month window to land a cable in McMurdo Sound in summer, it is understood an icebreaker ship would be required.
Lionel Carter, an Emeritus professor at Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, who is also an expert on submarine cable risks, emphasises the challenges.
“It is a tough part of the world, without a doubt,” he says.
“You’re crossing the biggest ocean current system on the planet, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, it is ‘the big guy’ on the block.”
Scientists’ knowledge of the seabed is “OK” but would need to be refined to lay a cable to avoid hazards and “ice is always there”, he says.
“There are just a lot of considerations.”
But Bertler says if it could be done, it would change the way scientists could work in Antarctica.
“Covid has shown us that there are times when we can’t go into the field and also it is expensive and sometimes dangerous.”
Foreign Minister Winston Peters announced on Thursday that the international Antarctica season would be dramatically scaled back this year because of the pandemic, with only 800 scientists and support crew based in Christchurch or passing through the city to Antarctica rather than the usual 3000-plus.
Bertler says that if scientists could rely more on robotic monitoring stations where measurements and observations could be automatically taken and reliably transferred, “that would help us meet the timelines of climate change”.
“We know we are in the middle of a climate crisis. We have to deal with Covid at the same time. We need the really fast turnaround of data.
“It is only one part of the science of course, but it is a part that is particularly difficult.”
Change in Antarctica is “constantly surprising us”, she adds.
“It is always faster than we anticipate.”
NIWA’s Stewart cautions that if ultrafast broadband did come to Antarctica questions would remain about how to make it available where research was underway.
Stewart has been involved in experiments that use ground-penetrating radar that are left on site for a year or more to measure the thickness of ice shelves.
At the moment, data from instruments tends to be relayed by satellite straight out of Antarctica bypassing Scott Base, he says.
“A cable might push you more in the direction of having a local radio data network back to Scott Base.”
If there was broadband at Scott Base through a cable, but also if a satellite network such Starlink could provide higher speeds, “it would definitely change the sorts of things you could do,” he says.
“We are possibly locked into a way of thinking because of what has been available.”