Volcanoes under the ice: melting Antarctic ice could fight climate change



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Furious winds keep the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Anarctica free of snow and ice. Calcites found in the valleys have revealed the secrets of ancient subglacial volcanoes.
Stuart Rankin/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Silvia Frisia, University of Newcastle

Iron is not commonly famous for its role as a micronutrient for tiny organisms dwelling in the cold waters of polar oceans. But iron feeds plankton, which in turn hold carbon dioxide in their bodies. When they die, the creatures sink to the bottom of the sea, safely storing that carbon.

How exactly the iron gets to the Southern Ocean is hotly debated, but we do know that during the last ice age huge amounts of carbon were stored at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Understanding how carbon comes to be stored in the depth of the oceans could help abate CO2 in the atmosphere, and Antarctica has a powerful role.

Icebergs and atmospheric dust are believed to have been the major sources of this micronutrient in the past. However, in research published in Nature Communications, my colleagues and I examined calcite crusts from Antarctica, and found that volcanoes under its glaciers were vital in delivering iron to the ocean during the last ice age.

Today, glacial meltwaters from Greenland and the Antarctic peninsula supply iron both in solution and as tiny particles (less than 0.0001mm in diameter), which are readily consumed by plankton. Where glaciers meet bedrock, minute organisms can live in pockets of relatively warm water. They are able to extract “food” from the rock, and in doing so release iron, which then can be carried by underwater rivers to the sea.

Volcanic eruptions under the ice can create underwater subglacial lakes, which, at times, discharge downstream large masses of water that travel to the ice margin and beyond, carrying with them iron in particle and in solution.

The role of melting ice in climate change is as yet poorly understood. It’s particularly pertinent as scientists predict the imminent collapse of part of the Larsen C ice shelf.

Researchers are also investigating how to reproduce natural iron fertilisation in the Southern Ocean and induce algal blooms. By interrogating the volcanic archive, we learn more about the effect that iron fertilisation from meltwater has on global temperatures.

A polished wafer of the subglacial calcites. The translucent, crystalline layers formed while in pockets of water, providing nourishment to microbes. The opaque calcite with rock fragments documents a period when waters discharged from a subglacial lake formed by a volcanic eruption, carrying away both iron in solution and particles of iron.
Supplied

The Last Glacial Maximum

During the Last Glacial Maximum, a period 27,000 to 17,000 years ago when glaciers were at their greatest extent worldwide, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was lowered to 180 parts per million (ppm) relative to pre-industrial levels (280 ppm).

Today we are at 400 ppm and, if current warming trends continue, a point of no return will be reached. The global temperature system will return to the age of the dinosaurs, when there was little difference in temperature from the equator to the poles.

If we are interested in providing a habitable planet for our descendants, we need to mitigate the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere. Blooms of plankton in the Southern Ocean boosted by iron fertilisation were one important ingredient in lowering CO2 in the Last Glacial Maximum, and they could help us today.

The Last Glacial Maximum had winds that spread dust from deserts and icebergs carrying small particles into the Southern Ocean, providing the necessary iron for algal blooms. These extreme conditions don’t exist today.

Hidden volcanoes

Neither dust nor icebergs alone, however, explain bursts of productivity recorded in ocean sediments in the Last Glacial Maximum. There was another ingredient, only discovered in rare archives of subglacial processes that could be precisely dated to the Last Glacial Maximum.

Loss of ice in Antartica’s Dry Valleys uncovered rusty-red crusts of calcite plastered on glacially polished rocks. The calcites have tiny layers that can be precisely dated by radiometric techniques.

A piece of subglacial calcite coating pebbles. This suggests that the current transporting the pebbles was quite fast, like a mountain stream. The pebbles were deposited at the same time as the opaque layer in the calcite formed.
Supplied

Each layer preserves in its chemistry and DNA a record of processes that contributed to delivering iron to the Southern Ocean. For example, fluorine-rich spherules indicate that underwater vents created by volcanic activity injected a rich mixture of minerals into the subglacial environment. This was confirmed by DNA data, revealing a thriving community of thermophiles – microorganisms that live in very hot water only.

Then, it became plausible to hypothesise that volcanic eruptions occurred subglacially and formed a subglacial lake, whose waters ran into an interconnected system of channels, ultimately reaching the ice margin. Meltwater drained iron from pockets created where ice met bedrock, which then reached the ocean – thus inducing algal blooms.

We dated this drainage activity to a period when dust flux does not match ocean productivity. Thus, our study indicates that volcanoes in Antarctica had a role in delivering iron to the Southern Ocean, and potentially contributed to lowering CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

The ConversationOur research helps explain how volcanoes act on climate change. But it also uncovers more about iron fertilisation as a possible way to mitigate global warming.

Silvia Frisia, Associate Professor, School of Environmental and Life Sciences , University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate shenanigans at the ends of the Earth: why has sea ice gone haywire?


Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

There is no doubt that 2016 has been a record-breaking year for Earth’s climate.

We will have to wait another couple of months for the final tally, but 2016 will be the hottest year in recorded history globally. Average temperatures are well above 1℃ warmer than a century ago.

Global average temperatures, and “global warming”, often give the impression of a gradual change in Earth’s climate occurring uniformly across the planet. This is far from the truth – particularly at the ends of the Earth. The Arctic and Antarctic are behaving very differently from the global picture.

One particular polar change that has caught the attention of scientists and the media this year has been the state of sea ice. The seasonal growth and decay of sea ice over the Arctic and Southern oceans is one of the most visible changes on Earth.

But in the past few months its seasonal progression has stalled, plunging Earth’s sea ice cover off the charts to the lowest levels on record for November. Explaining what has caused this unexpectedly dramatic downturn in sea ice is a tale of two poles.

Global sea ice area (including Antarctica and the Arctic) by year, 1977-2016. National Snow and Ice Data Centre.
Wipneus/NSIDC

Arctic amplifiers

The northern polar region is an epicentre for change in our warming world.

On average, the Arctic is warming at around twice the global average rate. This is due to several environmental processes in the Arctic that amplify the warming caused by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

One of these amplifiers is the sea ice itself.

As the climate warms, it’s no surprise that ice melts. What is less obvious is that when bright, white ice melts it is replaced with a dark surface (the ocean or land). Just as a black car parked in the sun will warm up faster than a white one, so the dark surface absorbs more heat from the sun than ice. This extra heat promotes more ice loss, and so the cycle goes.

This can explain the marked long-term decline of Arctic sea ice. But it can’t explain why the past month has seen such a sudden and dramatic change. For this we need to look to the weather.

Arctic climate is characterised by very large natural swings – so much so that in the past few weeks some regions of the Arctic have been a whopping 20℃ warmer than expected for this time of year.

The polar regions are separated from milder equatorial climates by a belt of westerly winds. In the northern hemisphere these winds are commonly referred to as the jet stream.

The strength of the jet stream is related to the north-to-south (cold-to-warm) gradient in northern hemisphere climate. The amplification of warming in the Arctic has reduced this gradient, and some scientists believe that this is allowing the northern jet stream to develop a more meandering path as it travels around the globe.

Jet stream winds in the northern hemisphere, November 11 2016.
Screenshot from Global Forecast System/National Centres for Environmental Information/US National Weather Service.

A weaving jet stream allows warm air to penetrate further northwards over the Arctic (the flip side is that extremely cold polar air can also be pulled south over the northern hemisphere continents, causing extreme cold snaps). This appears to be responsible for the current extremely warm temperatures over the Arctic Ocean, which have caused the normal advance of winter sea ice to stall.

In effect, what we are seeing in the Arctic is the combined effect of long-term climate change and an extreme short-term weather event (which itself is probably becoming more common because of climate change).

The southern story

It’s a different story when we look at the ocean-dominated southern hemisphere.

Antarctic climate records point to a delay in some of the effects of “global warming”. The reasons are still debated, partly because of the much shorter climate records that scientists have to work with in the Antarctic.

But it is likely that the expansive Southern Ocean is an important climate change dampener that is able to “hide” some of the extra heat being absorbed by our planet beneath the ocean surface where we don’t feel it – yet.

Unlike the dramatic declines in Arctic sea ice over recent decades, the sea ice that surrounds Antarctica has been increasing slightly over the past three-and-a-half decades and 2014 set records for the most extensive Antarctic sea ice on record. So the decline in Antarctic sea ice since August this year to record low levels has come as somewhat of a surprise.

Again, the weather may hold part of the answer.

The westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean (analogous to the northern hemisphere’s jet stream) have strengthened and moved closer to Antarctica over the past few decades. One of the effects of this has been to push sea ice away from the Antarctic continent, making for a more expansive coverage across the surrounding ocean.

But the westerly winds are fickle. They are able to change their path across the Southern Ocean very quickly. And so while the southward march in their average position over many years is clear, predicting their behaviour from month to month remains difficult. This spring the westerly winds have tended to sit closer to Australia and out of reach of Antarctica’s sea ice.

What Antarctica’s sea ice will do in the future is still an open question. Climate models indicate that Antarctica won’t remain protected from global warming forever, but just if and when this might cause Antarctica’s sea ice to replicate the Arctic sea ice loss is still anyone’s guess.

Lessons in the madness

Extreme years, such as 2016, are important as they provide glimpses of what the new normal of our climate system may look like in the not-too-distant future.

But these pointers to where we are going also need to be assessed in terms of where we have come from. For sea ice, logbooks from the age of heroic exploration suggest that the Antarctic system is mostly still operating within its normal bounds.

The same cannot be said for the Arctic. The decline of sea ice there has been likened to a ball bouncing down a bumpy hill – some years it will bounce higher than others, but eventually the ball will reach the bottom.

When it does, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer. That’s a boon for shipping, but don’t expect to see any polar bears on those Arctic cruises.

The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Associate Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How China came in from the cold to help set up Antarctica’s vast new marine park


Nengye Liu, University of New England

Conservationists have been celebrating the creation of the world’s largest marine park, covering 1.55 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea off Antarctica.

The agreement, brokered at last week’s annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, will enter into force on December 1, 2017 – thanks in large part to China ending its resistance to the proposal.

For the next 35 years, fishing will be totally banned in a “no-take zone” covering 1.12 million square kilometres (72%) of the marine park, with exceptions for krill and toothfish in specially designated research zones.

The marine park’s creation follows years of often frustrating negotiations. The United States and New Zealand brought the idea to the 2012 CCAMLR meeting, but were met with concerns, particularly from Russia and China.

At the 2014 meeting, China set out the reasons for its opposition. Its delegates argued that the term “conservation” should balance protection and rational use of marine living resources; that marine parks should not be set up in the Southern Ocean without convincing data showing they will work; and that the CCAMLR has already adopted a wide range of successful conservation measures in the seas around Antarctica.

A year later, China once again looked set to block the issue, posing a series of questions about the proposed marine park. How could marine parks allow rational use of marine living resources? How could they facilitate scientific research? How would they be monitored and regulated, and how long would the protections last?

Nevertheless, China surprisingly supported the Ross Sea proposal at the end of the 2015 CCAMLR meeting, paving the way for this month’s decision.

Why the turnaround from China’s previous opposition? And what does this mean for its growing and changing influence on Antarctic diplomacy?

Global influence

There are three key reasons that explain China’s shifting position. First, China is a latecomer to the current global ocean governance regime. When the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, China was still relatively isolated from the international community. It was not until 1978 that it opened its doors to the world and engaged with the current international legal system, and as such it had little influence on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It has taken time for China to develop the necessary diplomatic and scientific expertise to become comfortable in this space. As a historic rule-taker rather than rule-maker, its government may need to overcome a natural mistrust of many existing regimes.

This issue is not unique to marine parks. Such hesitation was also evident when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and when it started engaging with UN climate change negotiations in 1994. But China now uses the WTO dispute settlement body as frequently as other members, and ratified the Paris climate agreement at September’s G20 summit which it hosted for the first time – another sign of its increasing diplomatic engagement.

Second, China became a party of the CCAMLR in 2007. As the world’s second-largest economy and largest fishing nation, China has global fishing interests, including off Antarctica. Chinese Krill fishing in Antarctica has grown significantly since 2009, reaching 54,300 tonnes in 2014. This partly explains China’s concerns over proposed no-take zones.

There is, however, a deeper philosophical concern, which might be described as “anxiousness for commons”. While China’s Antarctic fishing interests account for only a very small share of its global catch, they are highly symbolic because Antarctic fishing showcases China’s quest for freedom in the “global commons”.

Third, the international community is currently developing a new global ocean governance regime. By coincidence, negotiations on the regulation of fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean and other international areas of the high seas have been going on at the same time as the discussions about the Ross Sea. In the Northeast Atlantic, the OSPAR has already established a network of high sea marine parks.

As a rising power, China would not be happy to face constraints or bans on its activities at a time when its rising status gives it access to places like the high seas, the ocean floor, the poles, and outer space. It would be a shame if China were to remain silent on those issues, and it probably won’t – China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20) clearly says the nation would like to take a more active role in global ocean governance.

In the foreseeable future, we could possibly see China become more comfortable and active within the CCAMLR as well as the Antarctic Treaty System. Although generally being supportive, China would not keep silent. Rather, it would speak up more openly for its Antarctic interests, and have more intensive engagement with the Antarctic Treaty System.

One challenge for China would be how to enhance its capacity and expertise so as to provide high-quality proposals, which could not only pursue its own interests, but as an important global player, also help to make a concrete contribution to achieving sustainability in the Southern Ocean.

The Conversation

Nengye Liu, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why I’m spending three months sailing right around Antarctica for science


Nina Schuback, Curtin University

Spending three months inside a metal container on board an icebreaker in the Southern Ocean, filtering water while attempting to ignore freezing temperatures and huge ocean swells outside. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun … but it’s what I’ll be doing next year, in the name of climate science.

From late December 2016 to March 2017 I will be on board the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov, taking part in an expedition that will take me and 54 other scientists from 30 countries on a complete lap of Antarctica – the first international research expedition to circumnavigate the frozen continent.

The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (with the funky abbreviation ACE) is the first project run by the Swiss Polar Institute, and involves 22 projects covering different aspects of the biology, physics and chemistry of the Southern Ocean.

Rough ride

We’re not expecting the conditions to be particularly fun – but it will be worth it. A better understanding of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean surrounding it is critical – not just for the preservation of this pristine environment but also for the whole planet.

The Akademik Tryoshnikov: home for the first three months of 2017.
Tvabutzku/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The Southern Ocean is massive. It is also really far away from everywhere, which makes it hard for scientists to go there and study it. On top of that, there is no land at these latitudes to stop waves from building up, so waves can get really big, making the Southern Ocean a less than ideal environment for scientific work. I’m expecting that all of us will get seasick at some point.

Because of the size and isolation, our understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of the Southern Ocean is not very good. What we do know is that this region is disproportionately important for the planet’s climate. For example, it was responsible for storing an estimated 43% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans between 1870 and 2005, and 75% of the overall oceanic heat uptake.

The ACE expedition is a unique opportunity to collect data in the Southern Ocean. The voyage will set off from South Africa, visiting all of the Southern Ocean’s main islands and traversing a range of latitudes – visiting the Antarctic coast just once, at Mertz Glacier in East Antarctica.

By spending three months completing a full circuit of the ocean, we will be able to collect an unprecedented set of samples and measurements, which will greatly improve our understanding of the Southern Ocean.

The planned route of the research cruise.
Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition, Author provided

Productive research

My research is concerned with phytoplankton – microscopic algae that live in the sunlit surface layer of the oceans. Just like plants on land, phytoplankton in the oceans photosynthesise, using the energy from sunlight to “fix” carbon dioxide into organic biomass, producing oxygen as a by-product. The rate of this change in biomass is called primary productivity.

Phytoplankton primary production forms the base of marine food webs, making it a fundamental process of marine ecosystem dynamics and directly relevant to fishery yields.

It is also an important component of the carbon cycle, and therefore global climate dynamics. This is because through a process called the “biological pump” a fraction of the roughly 45 billion tonnes of carbon fixed by phytoplankton every year sinks out of the surface layer and is stored in the deep ocean, away from the atmosphere.

My colleagues and I are trying to improve our understanding of what controls the distribution of phytoplankton, the rates of primary productivity, and the variability in the biological pump in the Southern Ocean.

Unfortunately, even sending a shipload of scientist on a three-month voyage to the Southern Ocean to measure phytoplankton biomass, productivity, and other chemical and physical factors, can only provide a snapshot of what is really going on. Ideally, we need to monitor the whole Southern Ocean over seasons, years, and decades. And this can actually be done, with the help of a technique called satellite ocean colour radiometry.

The main focus of our research is the collection of so-called “bio-optical” data, which will improve our ability to interpret satellite observations and derive better estimates of phytoplankton biomass and productivity in the Southern Ocean. This, in turn, will allow us to use past satellite records to determine how phytoplankton biomass and productivity has changed over the past decades, and help to establish possible connections to ongoing climate change.

It also means that we will be able to use satellite data to monitor, essentially in real time, what is happening to phytoplankton biomass and productivity in the Southern Ocean, without having to rely on frequent and extensive expeditions. But in the meantime, I’ll be more than happy to be part of this adventure.

The Conversation

Nina Schuback, Researcher, Remote Sensing and Satellite Research Group, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Record high to record low: what on earth is happening to Antarctica’s sea ice?


Nerilie Abram, Australian National University; Matthew England, UNSW Australia, and Tessa Vance, University of Tasmania

2016 continues to be a momentous year for Australia’s climate, on track to be the new hottest year on record.

To our south, Antarctica has also just broken a new climate record, with record low winter sea ice. After a peak of 18.5 million square kilometres in late August, sea ice began retreating about a month ahead of schedule and has been setting daily low records through most of September.

It may not seem unusual in a warming world to hear that Antarctica’s sea ice – the ice that forms each winter as the surface layer of the ocean freezes – is reducing. But this year’s record low comes hot on the heels of record high sea ice just two years ago. Overall, Antarctica’s sea ice has been growing, not shrinking.

So how should we interpret this apparent backflip? In our paper published today in Nature Climate Change we review the latest science on Antarctica’s climate, and why it seems so confusing.

Antarctica’s sea ice has reached a record low this year.
NASA, Author provided

Antarctic surprises

First up, Antarctic climate records are seriously short.

The International Geophysical Year in 1957/58 marked the start of many sustained scientific efforts in Antarctica, including regular weather readings at research bases. These bases are mostly found on the more accessible parts of Antarctica’s coast, and so the network – while incredibly valuable – leaves vast areas of the continent and surrounding oceans without any data.

In the end, it took the arrival of satellite monitoring in the 1979 to deliver surface climate information covering all of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. What scientists have observed since has been surprising.

Overall, Antarctica’s sea ice zone has expanded. This is most notable in the Ross Sea, and has brought increasing challenges for ship-based access to Antarctica’s coastal research stations. Even with the record low in Antarctic sea ice this year, the overall trend since 1979 is still towards sea ice expansion.

The surface ocean around Antarctica has also mostly been cooling. This cooling masks a much more ominous change deeper down in the ocean, particularly near the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Totten glacier in East Antarctica. In these regions, worrying rates of subsurface ocean warming have been detected up against the base of ice sheets. There are real fears that subsurface melting could destabilise ice sheets, accelerating future global sea level rise.

In the atmosphere we see that some parts of the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica are experiencing rapid warming, despite average Antarctic temperatures not changing that much yet.

In a rapidly warming world these Antarctic climate trends are – at face value – counterintuitive. They also go against many of our climate model simulations, which, for example, predict that Antarctica’s sea ice should be in decline.


Jan Lieser, Author provided

Winds of change

The problem we face in Antarctica is that the climate varies hugely from year to year, as typified by the enormous swing in Antarctica sea ice over the past two years.

This means 37 years of Antarctic surface measurements are simply not enough to detect the signal of human-caused climate change. Climate models tell us we may need to monitor Antarctica closely until 2100 before we can confidently identify the expected long-term decline of Antarctica’s sea ice.

In short, Antarctica’s climate remains a puzzle, and we are currently trying to see the picture with most of the pieces still missing.

But one piece of the puzzle is clear. Across all lines of evidence a picture of dramatically changing Southern Ocean westerly winds has emerged. Rising greenhouse gases and ozone depletion are forcing the westerlies closer to Antarctica, and robbing southern parts of Australia of vital winter rain.

The changing westerlies may also help explain the seemingly unusual changes happening elsewhere in Antarctica.

The expansion of sea ice, particularly in the Ross Sea, may be due to the strengthened westerlies pushing colder Antarctic surface water northwards. And stronger westerlies may isolate Antarctica from the warmer subtropics, inhibiting continent-scale warming. These plausible explanations remain difficult to prove with the records currently available to scientists.

Australia’s unique climate position

The combination of Antarctica’s dynamic climate system, its short observational records, and its potential to cause costly heatwaves, drought and sea-level rise in Australia, mean that we can’t afford to stifle fundamental research in our own backyard.

Our efforts to better understand, measure and predict Antarctic climate were threatened this year by funding cuts to Australia’s iconic climate research facilities at the CSIRO. CSIRO has provided the backbone of Australia’s Southern Ocean measurements. As our new paper shows, the job is far from done.

A recent move to close Macquarie Island research station to year-round personnel would also have seriously impacted the continuity of weather observations in a region where our records are still far too short. Thankfully, this decision has since been reversed.

But it isn’t all bad news. In 2016, the federal government announced new long-term funding in Antarctic logistics, arresting the persistent decline in funding of Antarctic and Southern Ocean research.

The nearly A$2 billion in new investment includes a new Australian icebreaking ship to replace the ageing Aurora Australis. This will bring a greater capacity for Southern Ocean research and the capability to push further into Antarctica’s sea ice zone.

Whatever the long-term trends in sea ice hold it is certain that the large year-to-year swings of Antarctica’s climate will continue to make this a challenging but critical environment for research.

The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, Senior Research Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Associate Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Australian National University; Matthew England, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; Deputy Director of the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC); Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science, UNSW Australia, and Tessa Vance, Palaeoclimatologist, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Antarctica depends on Australia and China’s alliance


Nengye Liu, University of New England

Antarctica’s early history was marked by national rivalries – think of Britain and Norway racing to the South Pole in 1911. But since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, collaboration has become more important than competition. And the relationship between Australia – Antarctica’s biggest territorial claimant – and China, the emerging superpower, is among the most crucial of all.

One of Australia’s key aims, as set out in its Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan, is to strengthen the existing Antarctic Treaty system, by “building and maintaining strong and effective relationships with other Antarctic Treaty nations through international engagement”.

As Australia’s largest trading partner and a significant player in Antarctica, China is a crucial nation with which to engage if Australia is to meet its objectives. This raises the question of how the two countries might fruitfully cooperate in Antarctica over the next 20 years.

Existing ties

China began its first scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1984. It now has four Antarctic bases, two on Australian-claimed territory.

Australia and China’s Antarctic ties have thus been evolving for more than three decades, with a focus on science, logistics and operations. Bilateral relations seem to have strengthened in recent years.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping visited Hobart and signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia to collaborate in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Last year, Australia’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre signed an agreement with its Chinese counterpart, the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre, to develop new forecasting methods to aid the challenging task of navigating Antarctic sea ice.

February 2016 saw the inaugural meeting of the China-Australia Joint Committee on Antarctic and Southern Ocean Collaboration, which arose from the 2014 agreement.

But it has not all been smooth sailing. China has strongly opposed Australia’s proposal to establish a network of marine protected areas off East Antarctica.

Proposed marine parks off East Antarctica.
Australian Antarctic Division

Australia is also concerned about China’s presence in Antarctica. For example, a news article at the time of Xi’s 2014 visit suggested that “China may eventually try to overthrow the Antarctic Treaty system underpinning Australia’s claim to 43% of the frozen continent”, while questions have been asked about the scope of China’s mining ambitions on the frozen continent.

Potential future collaborations

There are several reasons, however, to expect that China and Australia can put aside their diplomatic differences in pursuit of Antarctic science.

First, it seems more likely that China will continue to endorse the Antarctic Treaty than to undermine it. As a rising power, China has growing interests in the Southern Ocean but it has no territorial claim in Antarctica. It would certainly not be at the front of the queue in the ensuing land grab if the treaty were to end.

Realistically, China should therefore continue to support the treaty, under which the seven existing national claims (plus any prospective claim by the United States, which has a research base at the South Pole) are suspended.

This logic is backed up by China’s behaviour with regard to the even more politically fraught North Pole. By becoming an observer of the Arctic Council, China has opted to embrace rather than challenge the current Arctic regime, despite the jockeying among Arctic nations over territorial rights.

Second, to maintain Australia’s leadership and excellence in Antarctic science, it will need to collaborate with industry and other nations. As an economic powerhouse, China has both the funding and the technology to deliver things like icebreaker ships, a well as a keen interest in Antarctica, which should extend to long-term scientific collaborations.

Third, Australia wants to maintain its leadership in environmental stewardship of Antarctica. One current hurdle seems to be China’s opposition to Australia, France and the European Union over the planned marine protected areas off East Antarctica. As the world’s largest fishing nation, China’s reluctance to support “no-take zones” is hardly surprising.

Nevertheless, this issue could potentially be converted from obstacle to opportunity, perhaps by Australia inviting Chinese scientists to conduct joint scientific research in these areas of the Southern Ocean. This would not only improve understanding of unknown marine ecosystems, but would also be a useful way for Australia to exert diplomatic “soft power”.

Antarctica is increasingly attractive to the more affluent of China’s tourists.
Butterfly voyages/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Finally, Australia has its own economic interests in Antarctica, such as sustainable fishing and tourism. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of Chinese tourists are venturing abroad, with visits to Australia passing the 1 million mark last year. With Antarctica now also on the radar for China’s richer tourists, Australia could not only benefit economically but must also work closely with China to develop regulations that prevent this nascent industry from damaging the Antarctic environment.

All of this means we can reasonably expect Australian-Chinese ties to grow ever closer over the next two decades – even in the world’s remotest place.

This article is part of a series on Australian science and diplomacy in Antarctica. Look out for more articles in the coming days.

The Conversation

Nengye Liu, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.