Space Has Better Internet than Antarctica, But that Might Change

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.”

‘Starved of bandwidth’

In a typical summer, McMurdo Station hosts a flurry of activity. Scientists of every description—biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and glaciologists—arrive to carry out research projects at the station’s facilities or at nearby field camps.

These efforts are growing more significant every year. Climate change is swiftly reshaping the Antarctic ice sheet in ways that could profoundly affect human societies all over the world. Antarctica is currently losing hundreds of billions of tons of ice each year, raising global sea levels in the process.

“We do know that sea level will continue to rise faster in the future,” said Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at University of California. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, speaking at the NSF workshop. “But our projections are conservative because we really don’t understand the processes that are leading to this mass loss all around Antarctica.”

Fully understanding the drivers of ice loss in Antarctica is key to making better predictions about sea-level rise. That means more data is needed.

But high volumes of data pose a challenge for scientists at McMurdo. The limited bandwidth means there’s only so much material they can transmit back to the U.S. Often, researchers are unable to fully analyze their data until they lug it home to their labs on hard drives.

That’s a drag on the scientific process. It means important findings could go months before being detected. It can also cause problems for researchers out in the field.

Antarctic research often relies on measurements collected by sensitive scientific instruments. If something goes wrong—perhaps an instrument needs to be repaired or adjusted in some way—scientists may not realize it until they begin processing their data. By the time they’re able to transmit enough data home to their colleagues by satellite, then wait to receive a response, it can be too late.

“The main message that I want to leave you with is our community is starved of bandwidth out of Antarctica,” said David Bromwich, a polar meteorologist at Ohio State University, at the workshop. “The capability does not exist for getting time-critical, large—and large is the emphasis—datasets off the ice.”

A fiber optic cable could transform both research and daily life at McMurdo Station, experts say.

Nonscientists working at McMurdo, who often are given lower priority when it comes to the internet, could have better connections. Daily operations and cybersecurity efforts would be easier to carry out. Improved video streaming could open up opportunities for scientific education and outreach efforts.

And scientists could send and receive more data at much higher speeds.

“We’re running a small town, and it exists to support our science,” said Patrick Smith, manager of technology development and polar research support at the NSF, in an interview with E&E News. “This would be like trying to run the international space station and crippling it by not giving it what it means to properly function to support these science missions that they run on it.”

There are opportunities beyond just better internet. It’s now possible to outfit fiber optic cables with special sensors that can collect information about ocean temperature, salinity and other scientific data. These measurements could give scientists even more information about the warming Antarctic coastline.

“Any more observations are key,” Neff said. “We’re appreciating more and more that every time we think some little detail doesn’t matter to the future of Antarctica, it turns out it does, and we always need a long time series for information to evaluate: Is what we’re seeing today really exceptional and really out of the norm?”

‘A broader suite of tools’

Five hundred miles from McMurdo Station, a small cluster of buildings stands lonely sentinel at the geographic bottom of the world. The South Pole Station is an outpost even more isolated than McMurdo, home to only about 150 people in a typical summer and just a few dozen during the cold season. From February through November, the Antarctic winter, it’s all but inaccessible to outsiders—too cold even for aircraft to reach.

Secluded in one of the Earth’s harshest environments, scientists are able to conduct research that would be impossible almost anywhere else.

The South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory maintains one of the world’s longest continuous sets of meteorological data from interior Antarctica. It monitors the atmospheric chemistry of some of the cleanest air in the world. Meanwhile, the unique atmosphere at the South Pole allows astrophysicists to detect elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos, research that can give them clues about the origins and the future of the universe.

These studies collect several terabytes of data each day—and they’re in the process of expanding, according to Nathan Whitehorn, a physicist at Michigan State University. Within a decade or so, he said, South Pole physicists will likely be collecting even more data than the famous Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

But satellite signal at the South Pole Station is even more precarious than it is elsewhere. Typically, it gets a burst of signal for just a few hours a day. South Pole researchers are generally able to transmit only about 10% of their data home—the rest must be shipped on hard drives.

Because the station is inaccessible for so much of the year, scientists typically ship all their hard drives just once a year—when aircraft are able to come through.

“You build up data until November, stick things on an airplane, keep a backup copy in case something happens with the shipment on the airplane—and then a month or so later, it arrives back in the U.S.,” Whitehorn said.

Now, South Pole researchers are hoping that a cable to McMurdo can help them with their own data problem. If the two stations could somehow be connected—perhaps by laying a second cable across the ice—then South Pole scientists could also transmit much larger volumes of data back to their home labs.

Even in the absence of a second cable, it’s easier to transmit data by satellite from South Pole to McMurdo than it is from South Pole to New Zealand or Australia, the next closest data hubs, Whitehorn said. From there, the data could be quickly sent on by cable.

South Pole scientists aren’t the only ones dreaming big. Other Antarctic scientists imagine McMurdo becoming a kind of central data hub for research sites all along the Ross Sea—and potentially farther out across Antarctica.

The idea is especially dear to ice experts, said Matthew Siegfried, a glaciologist at the Colorado School of Mines, at the workshop. To really understand what’s happening to the Antarctic ice sheet, scientists need to collect data from sites all across the continent.

The types of instruments glaciologists use in the field can collect huge volumes of data, some of them on the order of gigabytes per minute. In an ideal world, McMurdo could serve as a data center for more remote field sites, Siegfried suggested.

That still leaves the question of how those field sites would be connected to McMurdo. But a reliable signal at McMurdo could at least open the door for connections to other sites down the road.

Any future cable to McMurdo “really needs to be thought of as part of a broader suite of tools to help transform our science,” Siegfried said.

Next steps

The concept of a McMurdo cable has been floating around at the NSF for at least a decade, according to Smith, the NSF technology development manager. At the time, NSF commissioned a study from a subsea cable consultancy, which suggested that “theoretically it could be possible—but there’s lots and lots of details you’d have to work out,” Smith said.

The idea lost momentum as other projects took priority. But interest resurfaced again last year, when the government of Chile announced its own transoceanic cable project, stretching from South America to New Zealand and Australia. More recently, New Zealand announced plans for its first hyperscale data center to be constructed at the tip of the nation’s South Island—a site the NSF had considered for a cable landing of its own.

These kinds of projects could potentially make it easier for the U.S. to start work on its cable. If multiple parties are interested in building out the infrastructure for a cable landing in the same place, it’s often economical for them to team up and share costs.

With the cable idea back in circulation, NSF is working quickly to figure out if it’s actually feasible. The icy Antarctic coastline isn’t exactly the easiest place to install a fiber optic cable—lots of research is still needed on how to make it happen and whether it’s worth the cost.

For now, scientists involved in the recent workshop are busy compiling a report for NSF outlining the implications for Antarctic research. In the meantime, NSF is planning to commission a study on the engineering requirements a cable would call for, potentially with the assistance of other federal agencies.

The study could begin as early as August, according to Smith. Its results will determine whether NSF continues moving forward with the project. If it does, it could still take several years to get a cable installed.

“This is all exploratory right now—we haven’t made any commitments yet because we don’t know enough,” Smith cautioned. “We’re gonna follow it and see where it leads.”

But he’s hopeful about the current conversations, Smith added.

“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “But at least the discussions in the workshop were very encouraging, I thought—very exciting.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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