Australia losing its footing in icy continent, say scientists

Australia is losing its influence over the future of Antarctica because when it comes to the icy continent, ''science is currency,'' the Australian Academy of Science says.

In its submission to the federal government's 20-year plan for the region the academy says that, while Australia lays claim to 42 per cent of Antarctica, the number of science projects being supported under its Antarctic program is less than half that of 1997.

Will Howard, deputy chairman of the National Committee for Antarctic Research, said Australia's only ice-breaking ship, Aurora Australis, was more than 20 years old and would not be up to the job for much longer.

Meanwhile countries such as China, Russia and India were investing more in Antarctic research, including in mineral exploration, according to the submission.

Dr Howard said Antarctica offered a unique opportunity to see some of the first impacts of climate change and ocean acidification as they played out. ''That provides us with really important insights into how marine ecosystems closer to Australia might respond to climate change,'' he said.

''Things like sea-level rise are driven in part by processes occurring in Antarctica because part of the driver is the fate of the large ice sheets in Antarctica, the degree to which they are melting.''


Dr Howard said there were also important strategic reasons to keep a strong Australian scientific presence in Antarctica, because many of the problems of Antarctic management are environmental.

Both Antarctica and surrounding ocean systems faced the impact of human activity and if Australia wanted a say in how to deal with the damage, it had to be backed by science.

''For us to have influence over those management issues we need to be seen to be, and have credibility on, the science. That's an important link from science into more regional influence,'' he said.

Dr Howard said those on both sides of the political spectrum recognised the importance of the research so he hoped the academy's plea for more research funding, better and more reliable access to Antarctica and improved capabilities for data collection would be heeded.

Australian National University visiting fellow Harvey Marchant, who retired as head of Australian Antarctic Division's biology program, said funding for research had been reasonable, but he was concerned about possible cuts in the expected tough federal budget. Dr Marchant said it was important for Australia to begin the process of buying a new ice-breaker to replace Aurora Australis, because it was likely to take years and cost many millions of dollars.

''I would be just so deeply saddened, and I think it would be to Australia's international detriment and our standing internationally, if we were to let our Antarctic science program wither,'' he said.

In 1997 the Australian Antarctic Program supported 142 science programs, a number that has dropped to 62, according to the academy.