Mass human presence in Antarctica unsustainable, new options explored

Sending hundreds of scientists to Antarctica each summer may be a thing of the past.

Sending hundreds of scientists to Antarctica each summer may be a thing of the past.

Technology is set to replace big groups of scientists working in Antarctica as the traditional research approach is no longer considered environmentally or financially sustainable, Christchurch's Antarctic Office says.

The organisation, established by the Christchurch City Council, says the position is being accepted internationally and it is trying to find new technology to study the Ice.

Office director Eric Assendelft​ said the "current model" of sending massive groups of scientists and support staff to the icy continent each summer was environmentally and financially costly. 

New technology would see sensors send data and images back to New Zealand in real time.

New technology would see sensors send data and images back to New Zealand in real time.

"You're introducing more and more risks of contamination.

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"The cost of logistic support will continue to rise and you're not likely to see huge, huge increases in Antarctic science funding, so what you're ending up with is higher costs, less funding being available and so less science being able to be undertaken."

The cost to send a group to Antarctica was "literally tens of thousands of dollars", he said.

The international Antarctic science community was now calling for technology and innovation to support future research.

"It's not something that we've gone out there and said 'This is the way of the world', [rather] it's in response to what the international Antarctic science community are looking for and they're looking for solutions," Assendelft said.

In 2014, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) said it was not "particularly useful" to send hundreds of scientists to Antarctica. 

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A later report by the Council of Managers of the National Antarctic Programs (Comnap), released in 2016, supported that view.

"They (Comnap) also just reiterated the SCAR recommendation and said that continuing the current model [of] Antarctic science without using technology was a little bit dated," Assendelft said.

The Antarctic Office was working with international technology providers to test data sensors, which were set up around Scott Base to see how they could cope in extremely cold conditions. 

"You could sit back here in Christchurch, or anywhere around the world, and get real-time information."

Data was normally collected by a box, which would have to be set up and retrieved then returned to New Zealand manually.

"The other thing which we're looking at is New Zealand could deploy a sensor on behalf of say a Spanish scientist and then the data could be routed through New Zealand to Spain," he said.

"If you can use technology and you can collect data differently, or you can bring samples back to Christchurch, or you can bring samples back to your home, and still do the same type of research, then that's what we should be doing."

However, there would still be a requirement for some scientists to go to Antarctica.

"The international Antarctic community is recognising the fact that the cost of sending people down is huge and if you can do something different and still get access to say Antarctic samples, or Antarctic data, then you can actually get more science out of your limited budget," Assendelft said.

"If you don't have to send a whole lot of scientists down, you can actually do a lot more with that extra money you've saved," 

 - Stuff


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