British newspapers and media organisations are carrying a story today about a planned £200 million investment in a new polar vessel for UK operations in the Arctic and Antarctic. Heralded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne as further evidence of this government’s commitment to science and technology, the new vessel (which might enter into operation in 2019) will supplement the existing polar fleet of the UK owned James Clark Ross and the chartered ship the Shackleton. As Osbourne remarked, “One of the final frontiers in the world where there is still much discovery to be done are the polar oceans. Britain must continue to have a presence in these parts of the world. But our two current polar exploration ships are nearing the end of their life and need replacing. So I am delighted that we are investing in a new polar research ship to carry cutting edge British technology to put British scientists at the forefront of research in both the Antarctic and the Arctic oceans”.
Moreover, the chief executive of National Environment Research Council (which runs British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and manages polar/oceanic scientific programs), Duncan Wingham was quoted as saying that “The new ship will be a clear statement of the UK’s commitment to science in the Antarctic and South Atlantic, and increases our ice-breaking capability in the south and, just as important, in the Arctic.” Taken together, we have a strong sense of a ship being instrumental in shaping a hopeful future for UK polar science and an opportunity to show-case UK technology in places that still get routinely framed as ‘final frontiers’. Although the UK is an observer to the Arctic Council rather than an Arctic state such as Canada or Norway, NERC has an Arctic programme of research. Details here. There has been some controversy in the recent past over the idea that NERC/BAS might be involved in ‘frontier environments’ for the purpose of facilitating hydrocarbon exploitation. When the UK Arctic Policy Framework was released in October 2013 this was debated at the time. My colleague Duncan Depledge explored this issue further recently.
Perhaps more interestingly for students of geopolitics and security, the Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds added, “A new state-of-the-art polar research flagship will extend the UK’s capability and reach in polar waters. It also makes explicitly clear our long-term commitment to maintaining our presence and scientific excellence in South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory.” As before with previous debates about the future of BAS and the contemporary geopolitics of British Antarctic Territory, the planned ship is caught up in a geopolitics-sovereignty-science nexus.
The proposed design of the ship invites speculation. For example, the presence of a helipad on the proposed vessel is interesting in itself as it allows for a different kinds of mobilities and capabilities. In the northern Antarctic Peninsula, the UK currently does not maintain a scientific station and yet this is an area of the Antarctic where other states have established a presence there including Brazil, China and South Korea. Having a helicopter capacity, while useful for search and rescue, is also a means of facilitating surveying and inspection.
As a claimant state in the Antarctic, with overlapping claims with Argentina and Chile, the UK also faces challenges from newer states such as South Korea which are investing strongly in polar science. Alongside contested claims in South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and further north in the Falkland Islands, the story of a planned new polar vessel will be watched closely by South American neighbours and beyond. As ever, UK-Argentine relations remain bedevilled by accusations and counter-accusations of sovereignty-related activity, militarisation and resource exploitation.
While this announcement is just an announcement of intention, it does nonetheless serve as an important reminder that the UK appears ready and willing to enhance its investment in the polar regions, and especially in the Antarctic where the UK remains a substantial claimant/coastal state. The White Paper on the Overseas Territories (published in June 2012) is also important contextual material here.
It now seems a long time ago when the fate of another vessel, HMS Endurance, prompted a great deal of soul-searching about UK commitment to its most southerly overseas territories. But one thing remains constant – the polar ship remains an object of fascination and fizzing with geopolitical possibilities.