Following an historic visit to Antarctica by US Secretary of State John Kerry and ahead of an expected visit by Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg this week, a new policy brief released today by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney examines the importance of future US Antarctic research and Australia's potential role in its continuation.

The author of the brief, Professor Tim Stephens, says that a weakening of research under the next US administration would come with significant diplomatic costs given the importance of scientific effort for projecting influence on the frozen continent. He believes Australia has the opportunity to play a constructive role in pressing the US to stay the course in the public good science it undertakes in Antarctica. 

Much of Antarctic research is necessarily focused on climate issues, an area President-elect Donald Trump has shown particular antipathy.

"It remains to be seen whether under the incoming administration of Donald Trump that Antarctic issues will continue to be a focus for the United States," Professor Stephens says. "The reality is that the Antarctic is rapidly changing as a result of climate change, and understanding this process and its implications for Australia, the US and the world is vital."

Key findings

  • Australia and the United States should consider a formal demonstration of their shared commitment to the objectives of the Antarctic Treaty.
  • There are multiple points of common interest in the extreme south upon which a formal declaration could pivot, from new logistical arrangements for heavy airlift capacity through to vital matters of substantive policy, including climate change.
  • Increased collaboration by Australia with China in Antarctica provides opportunities for the United States to gain insights into China’s attitude to, and activities, in Antarctica.

Tim Stephens is available for interview about the policy brief and its recommendations. He is a Professor of International Law and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Sydney. He is also President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law.