Hello Antarctica – Subsea cable to McMurdo gains momentum | Polarjournal
The largest station in Antarctica is home to around 1,000 people and offers many things to make life reasonably pleasant. But in terms of communication, McMurdo is a basket case, which makes the work of the researchers and technical staff very difficult. (Image: Cody Johnson USAP / NSF )

Communication is key to everything, even in Antarctica. Contact with the outside world takes place via satellite, which is plagued by numerous issues. Some Antarctic treaty states have long had plans in the drawers to connect their stations with fiber optic cables. The USA also has such plans and the National Science Foundation has now published a desktop study to connect the largest place in Antarctica with the world.

An underwater fiber optic cable from New Zealand into the Ross Sea to McMurdo is to connect the largest US-run Antarctic station with the rest of the world in the future and ensure that communication is fast and less dependent on the weather. The National Science Foundation NSF has now fleshed out the idea and taken a closer look at it in a desktop study.

The NSF, which is responsible for managing the US research program in Antarctica and for its stations, would like to move away from the satellite links that previously ensured communication. On the one hand, the satellites currently in use are ageing and can no longer meet the requirements of a modern communication line in terms of speed and data volumes. In addition, increasingly difficult weather conditions, which can disrupt a connection between the ground station and satellite, are likely to occur more frequently in the future. While a StarLink antenna was erected in McMurdo last year, it is still only a pilot installation.

The 387-page study was launched two years ago during a geophysical workshop. It now shows that it is very much possible to lay such a connection and proposes several routes. It also points out difficulties and obstacles and has also drawn up an initial risk assessment for the impact on the environment.

The shortest route proposed by the authors of the study, which runs between Invercargill in New Zealand and McMurdo, is more than 4,900 kilometers long. Two junctions along the route will connect the Australian station on Macquarie Island and the stations in Terra Nova Bay to the cable. A second route, starting from Australia’s capital Sydney and also passing Macquarie, was also considered by the authors, but is regarded as less attractive. At around 6,424 kilometers, this route is over 30 percent longer and passes through numerous areas that pose potential risks of human-induced damage.

But it is not only human activities that pose a high risk. Natural causes, especially seismic activity along the route, can also pose a risk of cable breakage. To ensure that no data is lost if the cable is interrupted, cloud-based networks are to be set up at both ends of the cable where the data is continuously stored. In addition, the route was chosen based on the latest research findings on seismic activity on the seabed. As a result, the cable would not be laid along the most direct route, but with several turns and curves.

The planned cable is also intended to directly support research by attaching sensors and data collectors, known as smart repeaters, to the cable to explore and measure the previously poorly researched seabed in the region. This would allow the cables and regions to be monitored. Image: National Science Foundation, Original: Howe et al (2019) Front Mar Sci 56

The cable will not only ensure improved data transfer between Antarctica and the rest of the world, but also support research. On the one hand, of course, research teams will have faster and better access to their institutions and information. Instead, the NSF would like to use the opportunity to obtain missing data from the deep-sea area between Australia / New Zealand and Antarctica, which has hardly been explored to date. Smart repeaters are to be attached to the cables for this purpose. These are sophisticated sensors and data collectors that can measure temperature, salinity or pressure, for example. The aim is to investigate and monitor the geophysical conditions on the seabed in the region.

The study that has now been published is an important first step towards putting the project on track. However, further studies still need to examine and evaluate the risks and potential obstacles in more detail before a final decision can be made. The NSF would like to organize another workshop on this subject. These studies will also provide more precise information on the possible costs. In the current study, this aspect was removed in the publicly available form.

The USA is also not the first country to deal with such a connection. Chile and Australia have also published their own plans. Chile, which is planning its route from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula, commissioned a feasibility study last year. The country is also planning a connection to Australia.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

The project was presented at the COMNAP meeting in June 2023. The video shows the presentation (in English), duration: 18 min

Link to the study of the National Science Foundation (as pdf)

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