Space Has Better Internet than Antarctica, But that Might Change

A proposed fiber optic cable could make it easier for scientists to transmit crucial climate data

Scientists pushing for a fiber optic cable that would extend from New Zealand or Australia all the way down to McMurdo Station.Chelsea Harvey
July 20, 2021

Nestled at the southern tip of Ross Island, just off the Antarctic coast, lies one of the most remote towns in the world. McMurdo Station is the main U.S. outpost in Antarctica, built on an outcropping of rugged volcanic rock.

McMurdo Station has no permanent residents—just a revolving door of visiting scientists and temporary personnel, some of whom live there for up to a year at a time. At its most populous, typically during the summer, it houses about 1,000 people.

Their only connection to the outside world comes in the form of satellite systems, which provide limited and fragile access to the internet. That means hundreds of people share a slow and intermittent internet connection.

Now, scientists hope to bring Antarctica into the 21st century. They’re pushing for a fiber optic cable—the fastest form of internet technology—that would extend from New Zealand or Australia all the way down to McMurdo Station.

The idea has been floating around for years, according to Peter Neff, a glaciologist at the University of Minnesota. But it’s recently begun to gain traction again.

The National Science Foundation sponsored a three-day workshop last month to examine the value such a cable could bring to Antarctica. The workshop featured speakers from research institutions across the U.S., as well as New Zealand and Australia.

Workshop organizers, including Neff, are working on a summary report that they hope to submit to NSF later this month. Meanwhile, the agency is planning to start work on its own “desktop studies”—compiling research and data on what would be required to make the cable a reality—as early as next month.

It’s not the first time NSF has explored the idea. It came up in the past, only to lose steam. But interest has recently reignited in part because a series of cable projects underway in New Zealand could make it easier for the U.S. to begin work on its own cable construction in the near future.

At the same time, interest in improving scientific capabilities in Antarctica—where climate change is already having a profound effect—is at an all-time high.

“It seems like right now there’s an opportunity that’s really lit a fire under NSF,” Neff said in an interview with E&E News. “That if they are able to do this, now is the time.”

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