Our breaking story on the Australian Antarctic Division’s withdrawal from Macquarie Island (Macquarie Island pullout) has drawn a welcome, if very belated, admission from the AAD and its minister, Senator Ian Campbell, that the pullout is indeed happening.

We’re also pleased to have been able to assist the Tasmanian Government, as administrator of Macquarie Island, which said it knew nothing of the AAD’s plans until the Tasmanian Times story.

But the Commonwealth response raises many more questions than it answers. And the denials about the parlous state of AAD finances rings hollow in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Tasmanian Times has scanned the information in items in ‘The Mercury’ (Goodbye to Macquarie) and on ABC News, and found many holes in the AAD version of events. Here are some questions:

1 Professor Michael Stoddart, AAD Chief Scientist, said the AAD was consulting with the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) to ensure that BoM observers could continue to work on the island. But Senator Campbell (through his spokeswoman) said that ‘the future of the Macquarie base is a matter for the state’ (meaning Tasmania). O-kay. Is he saying that BoM isn’t going to have any part in maintaining the station?

2 Prof. Stoddart said the decision ‘has nothing to do with financial constraints’. But Tasmanian Times is aware that Director Dr Tony Press informed AAD staff late last year that pressing financial problems meant that the AAD couldn’t afford to keep all stations open. He said that besides pulling out from Macquarie Island the AAD would have to scale down its commitment to Mawson in Antarctica or find another country to help to run it in partnership. (Mawson is Australia’s oldest Antarctic station, established over 50 years ago.) What’s the real story here?

As Tasmanian Times predicted, much was made by the AAD of the need to focus science elsewhere. Prof. Stoddart said Heard Island was a better venue for climate change work and the AAD would focus its subantarctic work there. Which leads us to two more questions:

3 What are the AAD’s plans for work on Heard Island? According to the AAD website there are no plans to visit the island this summer or next (2006-07), which is as far as the publicly-available schedule goes. The cost of setting up a new station on Heard Island, or of conducting summer-only expeditions, would run into the millions of dollars, well beyond what we understand is the AAD’s present and foreseeable financial capacities. It doesn’t look like we’re going to see much action on Heard Island for some time soon.

4 Prof. Stoddart says that ‘strategic scientific priorities’ dictate that Australia should do climate change studies on Heard Island where there are glaciers affected by global warming. But on this score, some scientists argue that Macquarie Island is at least as strategic as Heard Island. The latter is less than 500 km from Kerguelen (also partly ice-covered, like Heard), where the French have a year-round base and study glacial retreat as part of their scientific program. By contrast, Macquarie is all alone in the Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean. It’s 5700 km from Kerguelen (the nearest permanent subantarctic station) and 6400 km from South Georgia (the next nearest). (See map) Why is Heard so much more ‘strategic’ than Macquarie?

In any case, scientists inform us that glacial studies are only one of many sources of information on climate change. Sea and air temperatures and composition, sea-ice fluctuations and animal populations and behaviour are other climate-change indicators. In most of these areas, strategically-located Macquarie Island, with its nearly 60 continuous years of data sets, is a massive contributor.

Tasmanian Times has inside information that the AAD is desperately short of money because of past over-commitments on capital programs. The cost of new air services between Antarctic stations and field sites, currently hit by yet another breakdown in the field, is a major component of this budget blow-out.

Despite Prime Minister Howard’s announcement last year of new funds ($46.3 million over four years) to get the long-awaited Hobart-Casey flights into the air, the AAD has been forced to look at shedding staff before the end of this financial year.

Tasmanian Times calls for the Australian Antarctic Division and its Minister to come clean with the Australian public and reveal the extent of the AAD’s financial problems. Then maybe something constructive can be done to sort things out.

The Mercury: Island asbestos woe

The ABC: Stranded Antarctic crew awaits rescue