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A natural end

William Cullerne Bown

The vast whiteness of Antarctica can be interpreted in many ways. Some find its bleakness haunting. Some find its untouched landscape precious. Still others see a blank canvas on which to paint another scene of conquest.

By 1933 and with the Empire still real, Britain had claimed more than 230 of the 360 degrees around the South Pole. Since then, three quarters of that original claim has been shared with Australia and New Zealand, with the UK retaining control of a sector lying between lines radiating out from the pole at 20°W and 80°W.

But in 1942, Argentina got into the game, and made a claim that encompasses most, if not quite all, of Britain’s Antarctic territories, including the Weddell Sea, Palmer Land and the Ronne ice shelf, not to mention both the South Shetland Islands and South Orkney Islands.

Push has not yet come to shove. The harsh conditions continue to deter exploitation of the continent’s mineral resources. And so thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, Britain’s Halley Research Station, one of seven UK bases on the continent, coexists a few hundred miles along the coast from Argentina’s Belgrano station.

For now, the elements seem to pose the biggest threat to Britain’s foothold in Antarctica—Halley has been buried by snow and rebuilt four times over the years. But if meaningful resource extraction starts up, Argentinian ambitions could become more of a threat. Then the legal basis of the claims may be tested.

This is why it is necessary for the claimants to maintain not just a presence in Antarctica but a functioning colony. The international precedents are well established and it is not enough to simply land somewhere and plant a flag. Claimants must also display the trappings of colonisation. Postal services help. So do babies (there is reportedly an Argentinian who was born in Antarctica). As does state-directed activity, such as scientific research.

This is the imperial backdrop to the British Antarctic Survey, and it is linked to the tender place that BAS occupies in the British imagination.

In an era when talk of colonies makes us feel awkward, the lack of natives means Antarctica is probably the only place left on Earth where we can give our expansionist ambitions full rein. Shackleton, Scott, Oates, “I am just going outside and may be some time”—to talk of BAS is to drink from a heady cocktail of history and heroism.

So when NERC says it wants to merge BAS with the National Oceanography Centre under a new, instantly forgettable name and cut its budget, the implications seem obvious. Like the cuts in the BBC’s World Service, this is another symptom of Britain’s decline into insularity. Worse, we seem to be giving up on both courage and the environment.

But is it really like this? Science evolves, and in 2012 distinctions between polar and oceanographic disciplines seem archaic. There is a real and important purpose in the research done by BAS, but it lies primarily in contributing to our understanding the whole system of the Earth’s climate. So there is a good case to be made for the merger in terms of science strategy.

At the same time, NERC has to find budget savings of about 12 per cent in real terms. True, it has not identified in its consultation document the savings it thinks a merger will bring. But it seems pointless to argue that significant savings cannot be made by, for example, merging the two separate fleets of BAS and NERC research ships. Half a million here, half a million there—in the age of austerity finding savings like this is a research council’s job.

And if some of those savings come from leasing the ships to oil and other companies, is that really a bad thing? As the decades pass, no research institute can be immune from closure, despite the inevitable upheavals. Otherwise, the only guarantee is a growing accumulation of dead wood.

And provided the transition to the new institute is well managed, the impact on Britain’s Antarctic claim should be minimal. NERC has already pledged to maintain its activity there though the Foreign Office is, for now, reserving its position.

Still, NERC has not solved the conundrum of branding, an issue that, even though it often provokes a sneer, is hugely important. Why are NASA and the NHS so well funded? Because of national affection for these brands. This affection is there for BAS but not for the NOC or NERC, something that can be telling during spending reviews.

You can’t leverage the capital in the BAS brand by destroying it. So I would rather see the new institute given a name that begins with “British”, ends with “Survey” and has the word “Antarctic” as one of the words in the middle. It might not reflect the purpose of the new institute as accurately as calling it the NERC Centre for Marine and Polar Science, but it would be both memorable and valuable.

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