On a volcanic rock just off the coast of Antarctica, McMurdo Station is abuzz with scientific research this time of year. Run by the US National Science Foundation, the station sees up to 1,000 visitors in the Antarctic summer from October to February, who travel here to conduct research on topics ranging from climate to ocean science.
But despite its central role in Antarctic research, McMurdo is lacking something most scientists working at 21st-century laboratories take for granted: high-speed internet.
McMurdo sits on the only continent that doesn’t have a high-speed fiber optic cable connection to the rest of the world. That could soon change, however.
Earlier this year, the NSF began seriously exploring the possibility of building a fiber optic cable that would travel along the seafloor from Antarctica to neighboring New Zealand or Australia. The idea was first raised a little over a decade ago but lost traction as other projects took priority. If this latest effort to modernize Antarctica’s internet is a success, scientists say it would transform both research and daily life on the frozen continent.
“It would change the fundamental experience of living in Antarctica,” said Peter Neff, glaciologist and assistant research professor at the University of Minnesota.
Today, researchers working in Antarctica rely on low-bandwidth satellites to communicate with the outside world. Compared with a typical rural household, the amount of bandwidth available per person at McMurdo is limited, says Patrick Smith, technology development manager at the NSF. Researchers often have to store their data on hard drives to physically bring back home rather than exporting it for their colleagues to analyze in real time. This creates a bottleneck that slows scientific research.
In late June, the NSF sponsored a three-day workshop that brought together US and international researchers to discuss the transformative potential of a fiber optic cable to Antarctica, including how it will impact research, education, and the well-being of those who spend time at McMurdo Station. In October, workshop organizers released an extensive report highlighting key points, potential routes, and how the fiber optic cable could be harnessed to collect additional scientific data in this remote realm.
Participants at the conference said daily life and research at McMurdo Station would change in myriad ways if a fiber optic connection became available. Researchers could livestream daily operations instead of relying on archival recorders, weather forecasting could be improved, satellite images could be analyzed in real time, cybersecurity could be advanced, and project participation could be broadened beyond those conducting the research in the field.
In addition to analyzing data more efficiently, the physical presence of the cable could make it possible to collect new kinds of data. For instance, the fibers in the cable could be used to collect seismic data via a new technique called “distributed acoustic sensing.” Sensors could be added to the cable to make continuous observations of temperature and pressure in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, a key site for understanding how quickly climate change is unfolding. The Southern Ocean is poorly observed, Neff says, and as temperatures rise, such continuous observations in real time could greatly improve scientists’ understanding of it.
Beyond the research opportunities, faster internet would make it easier for station visitors to get in touch with their family, their colleagues outside of Antarctica, and the broader public.
“Having that type of interactivity allows for people to imagine themselves in that situation and see what that work is like day to day,” says Antarctic filmmaker Ariel Waldman.
In 2018, Waldman traveled to Antarctica for five weeks to film life under the ice through NSF’s Antarctica Artist and Writers Program. Waldman said that having faster internet will make a big difference for science communication because it will allow communicators to interact with people outside of Antarctica in real time.
Although a high-speed internet connection could offer many benefits, some scientists also worry about how such a change will impact the culture in McMurdo Station.
“Another important conversation is how it would change the way that the community functions,” Neff said. Antarctic research stations are tight-knit communities because of their isolation, Neff explained. Full connectivity could change a lot, including how researchers interact with each other and how focused they are on fieldwork versus events back home.
The next step in making Antarctica’s high-speed internet upgrade a reality is a formal desktop and engineering design study that NSF will be conducting with assistance from the Department of Defense. Completing that study, which will include pricing out the cable and related infrastructure, studying the route, and developing a schedule for getting everything installed, is a key milestone. After that, NSF will decide whether to proceed with the project.
“Improving the communications will remove some burdens, make it a lot easier for [people] to be deployed in the field, and extend the experience to folks that couldn’t deploy,” Smith said. “We’re looking at this as a transformative opportunity.”