New study on subsea cable for Antarctica

Created January 8, 2024
News and Business

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has released a comprehensive desktop study (DTS) assessing the feasibility of connecting NSF’s McMurdo Station in Antarctic, to either Australia or New Zealand via a subsea fibre cable through the South Pacific region. The study includes data on the Southern Ocean’s properties, marine life, seabed geology, climate conditions, national/international regulations and environmental review and permitting requirements for the region.

The study helps establish the design parameters for the proposed telecommunication cable. It identifies routes the cable could follow, considerations for establishing the cable and possible landing locations at each end of the cable. The analysis also begins identifying how to adapt the cable to support scientific observations. Some ideas include incorporating scientific sensors into the cable, a concept is promoted by the United Nations Joint Task Force on Science Monitoring and Reliable Telecommunications.

NFS says equipping the cable with sensors would enhance research into one of the most under-explored regions of the planet: the vast depths of the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica strongly influences other oceans and climates worldwide. Because oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, any information scientists can gain about this region is critical. Equipping the subsea telecommunications cable with sensors would help researchers better understand how deep-sea currents contribute to global climate change and improve understanding of earthquake seismology and related early warning signs for tsunamis in the earthquake-prone South Pacific region.

Currently, all U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research stations and field camps receive internet coverage through satellite. This coverage can be difficult to obtain and often has limited capacity, requiring residents to ration internet bandwidth. But, due to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s new work, this issue could be solved while also collecting valuable scientific information.

NSF’s Geosciences and Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorates commissioned this study in response to a science workshop held in 2021. The three-day workshop reviewed the transformational potential that high-speed telecommunications would have for research and life in Antarctica. McMurdo Station, a self-contained “science town” with a population of up to 1,000 individuals, currently possesses the internet bandwidth of just an average single household in the United States. Thinly spreading that bandwidth across all researchers and personnel restricts the support of scientific research, operations of the station and the personal needs of the staff who spend months deployed at McMurdo Station. Antarctica is the only continent that does not have a cable connection to the rest of the world.

NSF is now implementing follow-on studies to refine the issues raised in the DTS. NSF is planning a second science workshop, or panel, to refine the science goals and objectives that will influence the cable design and route. This workshop or panel will provide key information for the potential advancement of the subsea cable into the NSF major facility design process.

The full report can be found here.


This article was written
by Peter Dykes

Peter Dykes is a independent telecoms and technology journalist who has over that last 30 years written for a wide range of B2B publications and companies. A former BT engineer, he specialises in networks and associated support systems. He is currently Editor of Optical Connections.