Australia cuts budget for Antarctic research | Polarjournal
Mawson Station, one of the Australian Antarctic Division’s bases on the frozen continent, will operate with reduced personnel during the 2023/24 austral summer. (Photo: AAD)

Major scientific projects, including work to study the decline of sea ice around Antarctica and that of penguin populations, are expected to be canceled, delayed or cut back due to budget cuts at the Australian Antarctic Division(AAD). The cut comes just after news that sea ice in Antarctica has reached a dramatic and surprising new low.

In July 2023, AAD management notified its staff via email that it would have to cut its annual operating budget by 16% for the next year. As a result, several projects that were to be implemented from Davis and Mawson stations would no longer be supported in the coming season. The AAD is expected to slash a total of just under AUS$25 million (about 14.9 million euros), according to the plans of Anthony Albanese’s Australian Labor government, and is required to submit plans to do so within the next 12 months.

Davis Station is the southernmost Australian research station in Antarctica. Due to budget constraints, airborne surveys of sea ice thickness and observations of fast ice on the Antarctic coast are dropped from the research program. (Photo: AAD / David Barringhaus)

Now, scientists around the world fear that research studying how climate change is affecting Antarctica is being interrupted. Others fear that research will be halted or at least delayed, even though answers to the climate crisis are urgently needed.

The cut comes as a surprise after former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government announced as recently as February 2022 an $800 million investment in the department to keep the continent “conflict-free.”

Scientists who rely on reliable logistics and transportation to AAD-operated stations have also complained that budget cuts are now affecting their research. That’s because the cuts also impact air and sea transportation of both people and materials.

Also, Australian Green Party Senator Peter Whish-Wilson called on the Labor government not to cut the division’s spending, citing the importance of research into the causes and effects of climate change.

Emma Campbell, the new head of the department indicated in the email sent out that temporary staff contracts may not be renewed due to budget cuts. (Photo: AAD)

An internal list that could be revised before the start of the upcoming 2023/24 summer season is long and shows 56 projects whose support could be discontinued, according to media outlets such as Britain’s “The Guardian”. For example, cuts are planned for staffing at Davis and Mawson stations, where six scientists were supposed to monitor breeding Antarctic seabirds and also study possible effects of the bird flu pandemic, among other things.

One priority project at Davis Station is the only one that can be fully supported by the department. Among the studies that will not receive more support due to budget cuts are airborne measurements of sea ice thickness and observations of fast ice, the area of sea ice that is permanently connected to the mainland and that plays an important role for many Antarctic species. Other projects could be conducted from Australia’s third station, Casey, the documents indicate.

Furthermore, the internal document states that the “Cleaner Antarctica Program” will not be implemented due to budget constraints. The program was supposed to serve as “a scientific model project” that would “strengthen Australia’s scientific and environmental leadership”. The plan was to remediate damage caused by human activities, including fuel and oil spills.

The impact of the cuts on other research institutions is just as severe, as some of the research projects are carried out in collaboration with polar institutions such as the Alfred Wegener Institute or various universities. Young researchers are also likely to be affected by the cuts, which could be quite a blow to their scientific careers.

Heiner Kubny / Polarjournal

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