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Speech
The Hon Dr Sharman Stone
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Federal Member for Murray

Launch of the Science Strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program
Australian Antarctic Division, Tasmania
Friday 7 May 2004

Launch of the Science Strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program


Thank you to Dr Tony Press, Director of the Australian Antarctic Division for that warm welcome.

Good morning all. It's good to see so many of you here, including representatives from ACE CRC, Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, IASOS, CCAMLR, National Oceans Office, University of Tasmania, Antarctic Tasmania and members of the AAD executive and AAD staff.

I am very happy to be here to launch the Science Strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program 2004/5 – 2008/09.

Australia claims 42 per cent of Antarctica. What does that mean?

For one thing it means that Australia is responsible for a larger chunk of Antarctica than any other country with a presence there.

42 per cent of Antarctica is almost 6 million square kilometres, or to give us a better picture – the size of Australia without Queensland.

That's a huge responsibility and one that the Australian Government takes very seriously.

Australia has a long and proud pioneering history in Antarctic exploration and scientific research.

Tasmania's own Louis Bernacchi - who studied the earth's magnetic field - was a member of the first over-wintering party in Antarctica in 1899.

And of course Douglas Mawson after whom one Australia's Antarctic stations is named...that station celebrating its 50th anniversary in February this year.

What was once the province of the intrepid and hardy souls of previous times is now more easily within reach.

That's not to trivialise the efforts of the early explorers. Rather it means that we now have easier access thanks to the development of such things as purpose-built vessels, aircraft and other logistic support for the science we do.

This new strategy for Australia's future program of scientific research in Antarctica is designed to support the Australian Government's role in the Antarctic Treaty System and to enhance our influence in it.

Australia was one of 12 original Parties to the Treaty, which was established in 1961. Since that time the number of Treaty nations has grown to 45, and activities in Antarctica and its surrounding seas are governed by this unique agreement.

In 1991, in recognition of Antarctica as the last great wilderness the Madrid Protocol was created to make certain mutually agreed resolutions on the environment legally binding upon member nations.

Australia, together with other Treaty Parties has ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

The Government's commitment to valuing and understanding Antarctica is absolute.

The Protocol is overseen by the international body the Committee for Environmental Protection which is headed by the AAD's Director, Dr Tony Press.

The Protocol also requires that future activities be planned so as to limit adverse impacts.

It is with those considerations in mind that the Science Strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program 2004/5 – 2008/09 was developed by the Antarctic Science Advisory Committee and I am very grateful to those members of ASAC for their efforts.

The Australian Antarctic Division alone is unable to deliver this challenging program for the next five years and will work in partnership with its colleagues in the ACE CRC, CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Tasmania.

The new Science Strategy places our research program firmly within the context of Australia's Science and Innovation policies as articulated in “Backing Australia's Ability”.

But it still leaves room for new fundamental science.

The strategy contains three major inter-disciplinary science programs together with a fourth environmental program that runs parallel and complementary to the science.

The first of the science programs is:

Ice, Ocean, Atmosphere and Climate

Many globally significant processes are driven by the unique climate and geography of the Antarctic region.

Better predictions of future climate requires the development of better earth system models that describe the interactions between earth, ocean, atmosphere and ice.

Many questions remain unanswered, such as –

These are matters of international significance and I am delighted that Australia's Antarctic program is making such valuable input into the Climate Action Program that Australia has with the United States and Japan.

Australians' quality of life in the 21st century and beyond will be determined by a range of factors that have global climate origins.

Better predictions of future change are needed if the challenges ahead are to be met.

Understanding the interactions between ice, ocean, atmosphere and climate will give us a clearer idea of the impacts on pressing issues such as future greenhouse gas levels, sea-level rise, the variability and rate of climate change and the “ozone hole”.

The “ozone hole”, of course, has particular consequences for life in Southern Hemisphere nations.

It also has consequences for the Southern Ocean itself.

Southern Ocean Ecosystems

The Southern Ocean is a prized fishing ground for many nations.

It is where the valuable Patagonian toothfish is found, for instance.

There will be particular emphasis on understanding the ecosystems of the current target species – Patagonian toothfish, icefish and krill – and the food chain leading to their predators.

Whales are significant predators in marine ecosystems.

To get the balance right is tricky.

What is sustainable harvesting of Southern Ocean species for commercial purposes while at the same time ensuring whales and other predators have enough food?

During the term of this new science strategy there will be development of significant research to support Australia's policy position in the International Whaling Commission.

But our responsibility goes beyond that.

Australia is a leader in the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR.

And the CCAMLR Convention also says that proper consideration must be given to dependent and related species in a bid to reducing by-catch.

We will continue to contribute to other international treaties such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals.

At the same time our contributions to international research programs will be maintained and strengthened.

The Antarctic environment, as with other environments, is subject to constant change and is addressed in the program on ...

Adaptation to Environmental Change

Antarctica, like all other regions in the world, has been isolated from the rest of the world for many millions of years and its fauna and flora have adapted to its harshness.

Coming to grips with understanding the processes is a major undertaking and relatively new in the span of time.

Antarctica, though, is a thrilling archive of what has gone before.

It's a unique laboratory that is ideal for investigating the impacts of environmental change on the structure and function of biological communities and species.

The information we get from this natural laboratory will allow modellers to build a more accurate picture of likely future changes in Antarctic ecosystems as a consequence of environmental change.

While we have learned a good deal about the adaptation to past conditions of a diverse range of species we have barely dented the surface of what is yet to be discovered.

So questions remain about responses to adaptations: What are the consequences of environmental change on biodiversity?And what will be the effect of predicted climate change on natural ecosystems?

We have made some inroads to predicting future climate change.

However, further refinements will be made through this new science strategy.

A major concern is how environmental change will affect the invasion by exotic, or introduced, species especially where this is exacerbated by increasing human activity in Antarctica.

And that brings us to the fourth major program in this Science Strategy.

Impact of Human Activities in Antarctica

A certain amount of romance surrounds Antarctica.

There's a ‘wow' factor that accompanies any discussion about this last great wilderness on Earth.

Most people will never have the opportunity to go to Antarctica and the striking images we see feed the notion that it is a pristine environment.

The reality is that at some locations, particularly around long-standing research sites, there is clear evidence of past human activity where it is less than pristine.

Australia has been at the forefront of developing the science and technology to remove this waste.

Our most recent coup was the removal of the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool of waste from the old Thala Valley tip site near our station at Casey.

This was a wonderful collaborative effort between the Australian Antarctic Division and the waste-management company Collex.

AAD and Collex personnel worked closely over a long period of time to develop the safest removal and remediation procedures. Collex also donated 240 containers to bring the rubbish out.

It might sound simple enough to dig up our rubbish and bring it back but when you're dealing with a frozen environment it isn't so straightforward.

You need to first establish whether digging it up will create further environmental disturbance than leaving it there.

And if you leave it there what will be the effects of run-off.

So you can see why we needed to first understand the likely consequences of our actions.

Once returned to Australia, the waste went through stringent quarantine procedures and treatment before disposal.

Because we are as fussy about protecting the environment at home as we are about protecting the environment in Antarctica.

It was also an excellent example of government and industry working together for the environment.

It is pleasing to say that Thala Valley has now been cleared of all refuse in what has been a highly successful exercise and something of a test case as we look to cleaning up other sites within Australia's Antarctic Territory.

Not only did we press for high standards to be set, we have been following through on how they should be met.

But there are other pressures on the Antarctic environment – increasing tourism.

Our program examining the impacts of humans in Antarctica has already started working on this.

According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, or IAATO, the number of ship-based tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from almost 7 thousand in 1992-93 to more than 13 thousand in 2002-03.

IAATO has estimated the number of ship-based tourists landing in Antarctica was in excess of 20,000, last season.

And though this is largely to the Antarctic Peninsula the concerns remain to ensure that human activity in any part of Antarctica is done in a way that has minimal impact on the environment and ecosystems.

The Australian Antarctic Division has been commended by the Department of Education Science and Training for the high level of international collaboration that exists in the program.

And I am particularly pleased that further international collaborative agreements are in the wings.

A truly international program!

In launching the Science Strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program 2004/05 – 2008/09 I feel very proud to be its current custodian.

I thank ASAC for coming up with this comprehensive step into the future of research into Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

And I will follow its progress with a great deal of interest.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia