Why researchers want to bring fast internet to Antarctica

It looks like Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is getting high-speed internet — a modern luxury feature that could connect its remote labs (and seasonal tourist hub) to the rest of the world. The station is located on an island just off the northwestern part of the continent and is the largest US research center in Antarctica.

As of now, Antarctica will remain the only continent without a high-speed fiber connection, The edge reported. But the National Science Foundation has started seriously considering bridging that gap with a new submarine cable that would stretch from Antarctica to New Zealand or Australia.

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Submarine cables that run along the seabed act as the backbone that supports the Internet. They carry digital information under many, many miles of ocean. TeleGeography compiled a map of some 436 cables connecting the worldwide internet. Installing a submarine cable is usually an expensive, multi-part operation that involves a specialized boat that can bury the carefully sheathed cable in the seabed.

Currently, Antarctica researchers use satellites to transmit their collected data to the outside world, The edge noted, with a limited amount of allocated bandwidth per person. Sometimes scientists resort to hard drives to physically port their data home instead of immediately sharing it with their colleagues in real time, which in the long run can slow the pace of research or limit the computing power that can be used to to process data. E&E News once suggested that even space had better internet than Antarctica.

[Related: A 10-million-pound undersea cable just set an internet speed record]

A personal note for the station residents: it would feel less lonely for a long time, allowing them to better keep in touch with family, friends, colleagues and communicate their science with the general public.

A year of NSF-sponsored workshops on solutions to this problem culminated in a 138-page report released in October that outlined the potential benefits of a submarine Internet cable and suggested how and where to build it. Furthermore, the report highlighted that it could be possible to add sensors to the cable to collect new kinds of Earth science data, such as how sea ice behaves in water or how different sea creatures move across the ocean.

Peter Neff, a University of Minnesota glaciologist and climate scientist, summarized their findings in a: Twitter thread, stating that across the board “existing and future Antarctic research would be improved if bandwidth limitations were eliminated.”

“A new submarine cable could be built with instrumentation that itself would enable meaningful new research and understanding of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica,” he wrote. “Construction of a SMART cable that provides essentially unlimited bandwidth to McMurdo Stn. is feasible and could also serve as a platform to expand connectivity to research sites and critical research programs at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.”

The next steps include for the NSF and the Department of Defense to prepare a technical design study estimating the cost of the cable and associated infrastructure, and then prepare a potential construction schedule. The NSF will review the final plan before finalizing the project’s approval.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to learn more about Antarctica, as the continent is in the midst of a full-blown meltdown. Many uncertainties still remain about how much Antarctica will melt and how much that collapse will affect the global oceans. The fragile icy environment is rapidly unraveling and scientists are working quickly to monitor the fallout.

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