High-speed internet could come to Antarctica
On a volcanic rock just off the coast of Antarctica, McMurdo Station is packed with scientific research this time of year. Managed by the US National Science Foundation, the station welcomes up to 1,000 visitors during the Antarctic summer from October to February, who come here to conduct research on topics ranging from climate to ocean science.
But despite his central role in Antarctic research, McMurdo lacks something most scientists working in 21st century laboratories take for granted: high-speed internet.
McMurdo is on the only continent that does not have a high-speed fiber optic cable connection to the rest of the world. However, that may soon change.
Earlier this year, the NSF began to seriously explore the possibility of building a fiber-optic cable that would travel along the seabed from Antarctica to neighboring New Zealand or Australia. The idea was first raised a little over a decade ago, but has lost ground as other projects have taken priority. If this latest effort to modernize the Antarctic Internet is successful, scientists say it would transform both research and daily life on the frozen continent.
“It would change the fundamental experience of living in Antarctica,” said Peter Neff, glaciologist and assistant research professor at the University of Minnesota.
Today, researchers working in Antarctica rely on low-bandwidth satellites to communicate with the outside world. Compared to a typical rural household, the amount of bandwidth available per person at McMurdo is limited, says Patrick Smith, head of technology development at NSF. Researchers often have to store their data on hard drives to physically bring it home rather than exporting it for their colleagues to analyze in real time. This creates a bottleneck that slows down scientific research.
At the end of June, the NSF sponsored a three day workshop which brought together American and international researchers to discuss the transformational potential of a fiber optic cable to Antarctica, including its impact on research, education and the well-being of those who spend time at the McMurdo station. In October, workshop organizers published a detailed report highlighting key points, potential routes and how fiber optic cable could be harnessed to collect additional scientific data in this remote area.
Conference attendees said daily life and research at McMurdo Station will change in multiple ways if a fiber optic connection becomes available. Researchers could live stream daily operations instead of relying on archival recorders, weather forecasts could be improved, satellite imagery could be analyzed in real time, cybersecurity could be improved, and project participation could be extended beyond those conducting the research in the field.
In addition to analyzing data more efficiently, the physical presence of the cable could allow the collection of new types of data. For example, the fibers of the cable could be used to collect seismic data via a new technique called “distributed acoustic detection.“ Sensors could be added to the cable to make continuous observations of temperature and pressure in the Antarctic Southern Ocean, a key site for understanding how fast climate change is unfolding. The Southern Ocean is poorly observed, says Neff, and as temperatures rise, such continuous real-time observations could greatly improve scientists’ understanding.
Beyond research opportunities, a faster Internet would make it easier for visitors to the station to connect with family, colleagues outside of Antarctica and the general public.
“Having this kind of interactivity allows people to imagine themselves in this situation and see what this day-to-day work looks like,” says Antarctic filmmaker Ariel Waldman.
In 2018, Waldman traveled in Antarctica for five weeks to film life under the ice as part of the NSF’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Waldman said a faster internet would make a big difference to science communication, as it will allow communicators to interact in real time with people outside of Antarctica.
While a high-speed internet connection can offer many benefits, some scientists are also concerned about the impact of such a change on the culture at McMurdo Station.
“Another important conversation is how this would change the way the community works,” Neff said. Antarctic research stations are tight-knit communities due to their isolation, Neff explained. Full connectivity could change a lot, including how researchers interact with each other and how much they focus on fieldwork versus events back home.
The next step in making the Antarctic broadband internet upgrade a reality is formal office and engineering design study to be carried out by NSF with assistance from the Department of Defense. Completion of this study, which will include pricing the cable and related infrastructure, studying the route and developing a schedule to install everything, is a key step. After that, the NSF will decide whether or not to continue with the project.
“Improving communications will remove some of the burdens, greatly facilitate [people] to be deployed in the field and to extend the experience to people who could not deploy, ”said Smith. “We see this as an opportunity for transformation.