Why researchers want to bring fast internet to Antarctica

It seems that Antarctica’s McMurdo Station could get high-speed internet – a modern luxury feature that could connect its remote laboratories (and seasonal tourist center) with the rest of the world. The station is located on an island just off the northwestern part of the continent and is the largest U.S. research hub in Antarctica.

Right now, Antarctica remains one continent without a high-speed fiber optic cable connection, The edge reported. But the National Science Foundation has begun to seriously consider bridging that gap with a new submarine cable that would stretch from Antarctica to either New Zealand or Australia.

[Related: Beams of light—not cables—are carrying the internet across a river in the Congo]

Submarine cables running along the ocean floor act as the backbone that supports the Internet. They carry digital information under many, many miles of ocean. TeleGeography put together a map that illustrated about 436 cables that patch the global Internet together. The process of laying a submarine cable in place is usually an expensive multi-part operation involving a specialized boat that can bury the carefully encapsulated cable in the seabed.

Currently, researchers in Antarctica are using satellites to send their collected data to the outside world, The edge be noted, with a limited amount of bandwidth allocated per person. Sometimes scientists resort to using hard drives to physically port their data home instead of instantly sharing it with their colleagues in real time, which in the long run can slow down the pace at which research can move or limit the computing power that can be. used 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]

On a personal note to the station’s residents, it would make long stretches feel less lonely by allowing them to better keep in touch with family, friends, colleagues and communicate their science to the general public.

A year of NSF-sponsored workshops on solutions to this problem culminated in a 138-page report released in October outlining the potential benefits of an underwater Internet cable and proposing how and where to build it. Further, the report highlighted that it may be possible to add sensors to the cable to collect new types of soil science data, such as how sea ice behaves in water, or how different marine animals move across the ocean.

Peter Neff, a glaciologist and climate scientist from the University of Minnesota, summarized their findings in a Twitter thread, which states that “existing and future Antarctic research would be enhanced if bandwidth constraints were eliminated.”

“A new submarine cable could be constructed with instrumentation that would in itself 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 St. is possible and could also serve as the platform to expand the connection to deep-field research sites and critical research programs at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.”

The next step involves the NSF and the Department of Defense, which is preparing an engineering design study that will estimate the cost of the cable and the corresponding infrastructure, and then lay out a possible construction plan. NSF will review the final plan before giving final approval of the project.

Meanwhile, it has become more and more difficult for scientists to learn about Antarctica while the continent is in the midst of a complete meltdown. There are still many uncertainties about how much Antarctica will melt and how much this meltdown will affect global oceans. The fragile icy environment is rapidly thriving, and scientists are working hard to track the fallout.

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