American Interests in Antarctica

Antartica is currently a model of international cooperation. It may not remain so for long.

A hundred years ago today, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and four companions reached the South Pole. It was a bittersweet moment. For seventy-eight days, they had man-hauled their heavy-laden sleds for eight hundred miles hoping to win the race to the “last place on earth.” They arrived at their goal only to discover that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had come and gone five weeks earlier. Tragically, Scott’s entire party perished on the journey back to their main base. Delayed by fierce storms, they ran out of food and fuel. They died only eleven miles from a cache of supplies they had laid the previous year.

Antarctica rarely makes the news. There are a few exceptions. Articles on global warming often refer to research conducted in Antarctica on the ozone layer and glacial melting. Scientific discoveries—in fields ranging from astrophysics to microbiology—are regularly published in specialized journals. The centenary of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions also led to a spate of stories on Antarctica’s history. But what's not generally reported is that the United States also has important national interests in the region. These interests must be fully understood and carefully considered, especially as the federal government looks for ways to reduce the deficit.

Of the thirty countries currently active in Antarctica, the United States has by far the largest presence. Under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, it operates three year-round bases: McMurdo Station on the continent’s coast, Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole and Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. It also supports numerous field camps as well as research vessels. More than three thousand Americans participate each year in scientific and support activities in the region.

The American presence relies heavily upon the U.S. military for logistical support. During the summer, air force C-17 aircraft transport people and equipment from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo. From there, ski-equipped LC-130s, flown by the New York Air National Guard, shuttle back and forth to the Pole and other research sites. The navy’s Military Sealift Command also provides two ships each year to deliver cargo and fuel to McMurdo. The Coast Guard used to employ one of its two heavy icebreakers to cut a channel through the sea ice for these resupply missions. However, both vessels are currently out of action, and the future of America’s icebreaker fleet is uncertain. For the past few years, the United States has been forced to contract with Swedish- or Russian-owned icebreakers to support its work in Antarctica.

America’s sizable presence and wide-ranging activities give it a substantial voice in international diplomacy related to Antarctica. This is no trivial matter. Seven nations have staked claims to portions of the continent, some of which overlap. Others—including the United States and Russia—maintain a “basis of claim.” In other parts of the world, disputes over territory often lead to conflict. Thanks to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, all claims have been put on hold, and unrestricted access for science and other peaceful pursuits is guaranteed. A robust system of multilateral consultation has evolved to deal with resource and environmental issues. All this has been accomplished without resort to military force. The United States was able to play a leading role in establishing the so-called Antarctic Treaty System precisely because it had the largest presence in the area.

The total bill for U.S. Antarctic stations—as well as the logistics lifeline that sustains them—is under $300 million a year. This funding will no doubt come under close scrutiny in the current fiscal environment. In fact, last summer the Obama administration commissioned a high-level blue-ribbon panel to help guide decision making on the Antarctic program’s budget. Its report is due early this year.

Lawmakers should resist any temptation to cut the program too deeply and thereby jeopardize the U.S. position in the region. For the foreseeable future, peaceful collaboration will no doubt continue to be the norm. This happy state of affairs should never be taken for granted. The policy and budgetary choices made today concerning the American presence in the region will affect the ability to influence Antarctic diplomacy in the future. That influence will in turn help determine whether Antarctica will remain a model of international cooperation. In this respect, the investment in the U.S. Antarctic program pays a huge dividend and is well worth the price.

Frank Klotz is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the author of America on the Ice: Antarctic Policy Issues.