Why Australians should care about the South Pole

Australia (whose flag is pictured on the right) is one of several countries with a big stake in the South Pole. Josh Landis/US NSF/Wikimedia

Earth’s geographic poles have been making a lot of news lately. Canada is looking to make a claim on the North Pole within the next couple of years, arguing that the pole (along with a large slab of the Arctic seabed) falls within the limits of its continental shelf, despite similar existing claims by Denmark and Russia.

The pole, however, seems to have its own view on this. Scientists recently reported that, having drifted towards Canada’s Hudson Bay for many decades, it has abruptly changed direction and is now headed for London.

It comes as a surprise to many people that Earth’s geographic poles move at all. We tend to think of them as stationary, the points where all the lines of longitude meet. Ninety degrees north and south, however, are defined as averages of the poles’ actual positions over a particular period.

If defined as the places where the Earth’s rotational axis meets its surface, the geographic poles are constantly on the move, with a periodic, spiral motion as well as a linear one. This happens because our planet is not, as we might like to imagine, a perfect sphere, but in fact is rather lumpy. Seasonal displacement of air and water on its surface, as well as changes within its mantle, contribute to the shifting of its axis and hence the movement of the poles.

The distances involved are not large – the linear drift can be measured in centimetres per year – but they are revealing. The North Pole’s lurch towards London, scientists suggest, is a result of recent melting of glacial ice and the emptying of underground aquifers for water supplies.

A century ago humans had barely managed to reach either pole; now, it seems, we have inadvertently managed to move them. Our decisions and actions are more closely connected with these symbolically most remote of places than we might imagine.

Windswept and remote, but still claimed by six countries. Bill McAfee/US NSF/Wikimedia Commons

The ‘other’ pole

In humanity’s thinking about the Arctic and Antarctic regions, the South Pole has long been the underdog. Due to the cartographical convention that defines north as “up”, we think of it lying under us, hidden away at the very bottom of the planet.

As I discuss in my book South Pole: Nature and Culture, the place conjures ideas of remoteness, isolation, hostile weather, tragic explorers, altruistic scientists and even extreme tourists. But we rarely consider it in political terms.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which declared the continent a place of peace and science and put national claims on hold, seemed to leave behind the imperial ambitions that produced the “race to the pole” in the early 20th century. And while Antarctica’s potential mineral resources are an ongoing source of concern, the South Pole, sitting atop almost 3km of ice, is not an obvious place to drill.

Now occupied by a large scientific research station, where (among other activities) astronomers use giant telescopes to study cosmological events, the South Pole is often assumed to be a politically neutral place, immune to the clamour going on in the north.

Polar positions

Why, then, should Australians care about the South Pole? Surprisingly, the pole featured in the celebrations that marked the nation’s federation in 1901. A spectacular pantomime entitled Australis, performed in Sydney over the summer of 1900-01, imagined a future in which Australia annexes Antarctica and takes as its capital the “City of Zero” sitting exactly at the pole – a satirical wink to the rivalry at the time between Sydney and Melbourne for the honour.

Although this unlikely future did not come to pass, Australia does indeed have a claim on the pole – or rather, a fraction of it. Although the pole is not the geographical centre of the continent by any means, the various wedge-shaped territorial claims – including Australia’s – meet there, like pieces of a meringue pie with the pole in the middle. The only exception is Norway’s claim, which has an undefined southern limit – ironically enough, given that Norwegians were the first to set foot at the pole.

The scientific base at 90ºS – the United States’ Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – thus sits across six territorial claims. This is a highly strategic position for a nation that recognises none of the existing claims but reserves the right to make its own in the future.

Antarctic territorial claims. CIA World Factbook

Connecting Australia to the pole

Australia’s claim to 42% of Antarctica is also, then, a claim (indeed, the largest of any nation) on the South Pole – if it makes any sense to claim a percentage of what is, after all, technically a dot.

Our domestic politics, such as the recently announced Australian Antarctic Strategy, which confirms our continued interest in the region and includes plans for greater access to the continent’s interior, are thus inextricably connected to the site sometimes described as the last place on Earth.

While the South Pole may not be subject to the contemporary claim-making that besets its northern cousin, this symbolic heart of Antarctica remains a deeply political place and one that Australians – both those keen to maintain our claim and those who believe that all territorial claims there are misplaced – should know and care about.

This is the first in a series of articles on Australian science and diplomacy in Antarctica. Look out for more in the coming days.