Chile plans fiber optic cable to Antarctica | Polarjournal
The huge satellite antenna (right) of the German GARS-O’Higgins station connects the station and the Chilean station next to it with the world. A fiber optic cable shall improve communication with the southern area. Image: Sergio Gonzales Alacron

Nowadays, most people take a fast and reliable internet connection for granted in order to stay in touch with the rest of the world. But communication to Antarctica is difficult due to the remoteness and distance of the continent. In most cases, it is via satellite connection, which, despite technical advances, has numerous limitations, especially in terms of speed and data volumes. Chile, which along with Argentina is the closest country to Antarctica, wants to change that. To this end, the Chilean government is pushing ahead with a fiber optic cable project to Antarctica.

As the Chilean government announced in a statement, the feasibility of a fiber optic line to Antarctica is also to be investigated as part of an approximately US$800 million investment package. Chilean Science Minister Andrés Couve stated these plans in the release. To this end, an agreement was reached between the regional governments of Magallanes and Aysén and the various national ministries. The investment package was adopted to promote the scientific and technological development of the southern regions of Chile. Minister Couve said, “The agreement represents a new milestone in making the southern macro-zone a pole of scientific and technological development.”

The Chilean Antarctic Territory covers most of the Antarctic Peninsula. Great Britain and Argentina also count this region as part of their Antarctic territory. Together with the southern regions of Magallanes and Aysén, this zone makes up about one third of Chile’s territory. Map: Michael Wenger, via Google Maps / Wikicommons

The macrozone mentioned by Minister Couve covers the southern regions as far as Antarctica and accounts for about one third of Chile’s surface area. Since the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic regions are playing an increasingly important role, not least due to climate change, the government now wants to take this importance into account with the planned investment package. The government says in its communication that the lack of digital connectivity “has slowed down integral and strategic development in the area, resulting in lost opportunities for growth, competitiveness, development, use of supercomputers, transmission of climate data and scientific activities in general.” The government now wants to change this. According to Minister of Transport and Communications Gloria Hutt, “To begin studying the conditions for the first submarine fiber optic cable confirms Chile’s leadership on the continent and our efforts to make it the heart of communications in the interest of science and all humanity.”

Australia is also making plans to lay fiber optic cables to its Antarctic stations. But unlike Chile, these are up to 5,500 kilometres away from the headquarters of the Australian Antarctic Division AAD). Image Christopher Wilson, AAD

Chile is not alone in its plans to digitize the lines of communication to Antarctica. In July this year, Australia had announced that a fiber optic cable is planned to connect the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters to the four Antarctic stations. The Australian Meteorological Office in particular wants to obtain faster and better information about the meteorological conditions in Antarctica and thus improve its weather and climate models. However, both the Australian and Chilean projects have a number of outstanding issues and problems. In particular, icebergs on the Antarctic shelf and also tectonic conditions on the seafloor pose major obstacles. For Chile in particular, the region between the South Shetland Islands, where three of Chile’s Antarctic stations are located, and the Antarctic mainland could pose a huge hurdle. This is because the Bransfield Strait is a tectonically very active zone, where earthquakes and even volcanic activity are recorded. So whether in the future the stations in Antarctica will actually be quickly connected to the rest of the world via fiber optic cable depends very much on the conditions of the last great wilderness itself.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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