SYDNEY, May 27 (Xinhua) -- Accused by leading scientists here of allowing national interests in Antarctica to deteriorate, Australia has announced its largest ever investment in Antarctic research, with a new icebreaker the centerpiece of the Southern nation's goal to establish itself as a "global gateway" to the south pole.
Australia risks losing its considerable influence in Antarctica if it does not increase its scientific output and make it easier for researchers to get to the continent to conduct research, a report by Australia's leading scientific academy has warned.
The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) last month lamented Australia's loss of influence in the resource-rich ice-scape, describing the access infrastructure to Australia's research stations on the continent and the sub-Antarctic islands as " woefully inadequate."
"Australia is rapidly falling behind developing nations that are taking an increasingly high interest in the Australian Antarctic Territory, particularly China, Russia and India," the AAS reported.
Australia's output of scientific publications - viewed as a measure of scientific productivity - has more than halved in less than two decades, dropping from around 200 a year between 1999 and 2006 to less than 100 last year.
According to the AAS, the ratio of scientists to other personnel had also dropped from one of every two in 1990 to just one in five today.
All that changed on Monday, when the senator for South Australia, Anne Ruston, told the Senate Budget Estimates that the reinvigorated aim of the current government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott was to "cement Australia's position as the global gateway" to Antarctica.
"The government is currently considering two tenders made to build a new icebreaker to replace the aging RSV Aurora Australis. As we discovered during Supplementary Budget Estimates last year, the previous Labor government made no provision for a new icebreaker despite spending 1.7 million AU dollars (1.5 million U. S. dollars) on a business case for it," Senator Ruston told Xinhua in an email.
The AAS report, released last month, described funding for Australia's Antarctic program as "chronically underinvested" while the basic infrastructure at the stations was "rapidly aging."
The celebrated Aurora Australis icebreaker, Australia's mainstay research and supply ship, has reached its zenith and is now past its shelf life in the demanding southern conditions.
While air transport has reduced the travel burden to the pole, air travel is entirely dependent on fickle weather conditions, meaning that access remained a roll of the dice.
Senator Ruston described the commitment by the Abbott government as the "largest-ever injection of funds into the Antarctic program," which is "critical to maintaining our presence in the region and ensuring Antarctica remains a place of peaceful scientific research and international cooperation."
The new ice-breaker is described as being state-of-the-art.
The vessel will be built "from the ground up" to exacting specifications. It will have an icebreaking capacity of about 1.65 meters (up from the Aurora Australis' 1.23 meters) and a cargo capacity of 1,200 tons (up from the Aurora Australis' 890 tons), making it Australia's most-advanced scientific vessel ever made.
According to Monday's Senate estimates, the government has provided additional funding of 9.4 million AU dollars (8.9 million U.S. dollars) in the 2014-15 Budget to continue vital operations, as well as 24 million AU dollars (22.1 million U.S. dollars) over three years for a new Antarctic Gateway Partnership, ongoing funding of 45.3 million AU (41.2 million U.S. dollars) over four years for the air link between Hobart and Casey station, and a further 13.4 million AU (11.8 million U.S. dollars) over four years for fuel and logistical support.
"The vessel will have a significant price tag," Senator Ruston said. "We anticipate several hundred million dollars but will deliver numerous scientific and economic benefits along with other investments in the Antarctic program. Its construction will be funded from the contingency reserve. Over the life of the program the total investment will exceed 1 billion AU dollars (940 million U.S. dollars)."
While Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, signed by 49 nations, Australia claims 43 percent of the continent - the largest of any nation - and as Australia's lead role in the ongoing search for the Malaysian Airlines MH 370 has shown, it remains active and responsible for the majority of the Southern Ocean.
The AAS has stated that of the 49 nations subject to the treaty, only 28, including Australia, were consultative parties, and that must demonstrate a "substantial science program."
"Actively pursing our role as a major consultative party ensures that Australia's Antarctic interests are not diminished," the AAS said in its 20-year strategic outlook.
"Australia's Antarctic program is critical to our nation's interests and this government is fully committed to maintaining and enhancing Australia's presence in Antarctica," Senator Ruston said.