The southern continent hots up
ANTARCTICA is 2,700km away. Yet as the brief austral summer fades, for Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, it is big business. The town is home to the Australian government's Antarctic Division and France's Antarctic programme. The two countries' ageing icebreakers are busy supplying their research stations. Australia is trying out a new research and supply vessel, which dwarfs its part of the harbour.
In early January the Falkor, a research vessel funded by Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google (and a member of The Economist's board), steamed into Hobart. Its research budget would quicken the pulse of any ocean scientist, and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania threw a party for the crew. Among other topics, the institute's researchers are studying why the Earth is warming more slowly than models predict. One reason could be the cold Southern Ocean, a powerful climate regulator.
Though there are (disputed) territorial claims, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty sets Antarctica aside as a scientific reserve. States assert themselves by building bases and planting flagpoles. The dozen original signatories have swelled to 50, including India and South Korea. China, which signed up in 1983, has the fastest-growing presence. Some 350 features now have Chinese place-names (there is even a Great Wall).
China's annual Antarctic spending has grown from $20m to $55m in a decade, and it has five bases. Its Ukrainian-built icebreaker, the Xue Long (Snow Dragon), shuttles between the Arctic and Antarctic summers, and will be joined in 2016 by a new vessel. Yet co-operation remains essential in this remote and hostile environment, and it relies on Russia and Australia for help with logistics and supplies.
China's long-term interest may be in resources. But mining has been banned in the Antarctic since 1998, and that would be hard to change if most countries active there resisted it. For now, scientists in Hobart say the Chinese are doing impressive research. Most ambitious is an attempt to drill 2.5km into Antarctica's highest ice dome. Trapped air may reveal the secrets of 1.3m years of climate change. But extracting samples without contaminating them is only one of many challenges. And, whisper Australian scientists gleefully—for co-operation has its limits—the Chinese may not be drilling in the best place.