U.S. Operational Retreat from Antarctica

Remote Visualization

Antarctica is not currently a geopolitical hotspot, but there are growing concerns about the increasing presence of great powers, particularly China, in the region. Unfortunately, instead of reinforcing the United States’ traditional leadership role in the region to advance science and preserve peace, the United States appears to be reducing its commitment to the region. Over the past year, the only announcements coming from the U.S. government have been that it will reduce its short-term activities and long-term capabilities in the region.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced in April that it would not support any new fieldwork this coming season due to the Covid-delayed modernization of McMurdo Station, which will create difficulties for researchers in the short term. More problematic is that the NSF and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) have announced cutbacks that will compromise U.S. scientific and geopolitical interests in the region for decades to come. Specifically, the NSF announced in April that it would not renew the lease for one of its two Antarctic research vessels, and in October 2023 it announced that it would operate only one research vessel in the coming decades, even if that vessel did not have the capabilities to conduct the myriad of missions it would likely need to address. Additionally, the USCG announced in March that it needed to “re-baseline” its heavily delayed Polar Security Cutter program, a sure sign that this program vital to U.S. national interests in both poles is in trouble. The decisions made today will have implications for U.S. activities in Antarctica well beyond 2050.

Furthermore, these operational and logistical decisions have not been offset by policy statements that provide a different narrative. No senior State Department official has made a policy speech outlining U.S. foreign policy interests in the region, the White House appears content with an outdated and incoherent national strategy for Antarctica from the previous century, and the U.S. Congress has not taken any actions to implement long-standing pending agreements or take a holistic look at U.S. interests, activities, and capabilities in the region.

Short-Term Implications

By design, the main activity in Antarctica for the past number of decades has been scientific research. The knowledge gained in this most-inhospitable area is invaluable for understanding Antarctica’s role in the global environment and the important regional changes that are occurring along its coastline and offshore waters. Sometimes, the discoveries there have significant global impact, such as the identification of the ozone hole in the 1980s, which led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. More recently, U.S. scientists have been researching how Antarctica affects global sea levels as well as weather and ocean circulation patterns around the world, which provides vital information for farmers and fishermen in the long term as well as for anyone who wants more informed forecasts about whether to carry an umbrella or not. Due to the almost complete absence of light pollution and moisture in the central highlands, Antarctica is also one of the best places in the world to research space and the universe, and its uniquely clean and dust-free ice is used as a sensor for particle physics studies.

Failure to fund or support researchers and the required logistical infrastructure will result in less research being done by the United States and those countries that rely on U.S. infrastructure and will limit access to areas of high importance. On April 1, the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs announced that it would effectively put new fieldwork proposals on a “hiatus” for the next two seasons and would solicit no new fieldwork proposals. It also left open the possibility of not renewing projects that had previously been approved. They said that delays to the McMurdo Station upgrade were the reason for cutting back. While Covid-related delays to the overdue modernization of the McMurdo Station is a major factor, funding for geoscience and bioscience research in remote regions has been limited, if not declining, for decades, which is unfortunate since scientific collaboration is much less expensive than geopolitical competition.

Long-Term Implications

Budgetary constraints were one of the factors the NSF highlighted in its April 29 announcement to not renew the charter for one of its two research ships, the R/V Laurence M. Gould. The vessel had supported marine research and logistical operations in the Antarctic Peninsula since 1997, so its nonrenewal is likely to negatively impact the U.S. presence in the Antarctic area with the most scientific, tourism, and fishing activity unless another vessel is found to take its place next season. This decision is consistent with the NSF’s plan, most recently explained in October, to halve the number of research vessels the United States operates in the region. Transitioning to one research vessel in the region would be easier if the specifications for the new research vessel, which will replace the RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer, would be state-of-the-art, such as including full helicopter capacity to reach challenging locations. 

Vessels capable of working in the treacherous Southern Ocean are increasingly in demand and hard to build. Through a June 2020 presidential memo, the Trump administration successfully pushed forward the long-acknowledged but ignored need for the United States to build polar security cutters (PSCs) to protect its different interests in the Arctic and Antarctic. Unfortunately, after facing significant challenges with the project, the USCG said in March that it would “re-baseline” the timeline for said PSCs. This is bureaucratic code that it is time to break out the Ouija board and pray for divine assistance for the timeline and means to achieve its objectives. The United States is not alone in having icebreaker challenges—both Australia (its new vessel cannot reach its home depot) and Sweden (it cannot obtain a valid or acceptable proposal to build two new icebreakers) have been in the news recently for their own challenges. However, other countries are producing icebreakers, including Chile (a new icebreaker is about to enter service later this year) and China (two new icebreakers are set to be ready this year and in 2025, respectively), and still more countries, such as France, plan to build new polar vessels.


Science equals knowledge and presence equals influence in Antarctica. The result of these seemingly independent decisions is that the U.S. physical presence in the Antarctic will be reduced. This will have negative implications not only for scientists but also for the geopolitics of the region. Antarctica is not going the way of the Arctic: no new sea routes will be discovered due to sea ice melt, no treaty provisions expire or need to be renegotiated in 2048 or any other year, and there remains a robust, if underutilized, system to monitor treaty non-militarization requirements that, along with Antarctica’s inhospitable climate, will minimize the risk of that region being used as a launching point for aggression. But a U.S. physical retreat from the region will embolden countries to pursue their individual interests rather than their collective interest. There are several steps that the United States can take to counter the growing perception that it is weakening its interest in Antarctica by limiting its operational capacity through 2050 and beyond. 

  • Adequately and regularly fund Antarctic science and operations. Failure to fund the operational and logistical support needed for U.S. scientific research and geopolitical influence will open up the path for increased Chinese influence over both science and politics. Funding them will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in the most cost-effective manner. Specifically, the United States can fund the McMurdo Station upgrade so the single largest human presence on the continent reflects U.S. interests and capabilities; ensure that U.S. logistical capacity allows for full-continent reach through ocean-going research vessels and heavy-lift, ski-equipped aircraft (as urged by U.S. senate majority leader Charles Schumer); augment traverse capabilities for research and logistical needs; and fund scientific research that yields theoretical and practical results, such as for the upcoming International Polar Year.
  • Issue a new national strategy for Antarctica. The current strategy was issued in June 1994; all other major countries active in Antarctica have recently issued their own strategy or had their head of state/government give high-level policy guidance. A new strategy should take into account current realities, such as the entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which took place in 1998, as well as developments from this century.
  • Increase congressional understanding of and contributions to U.S. Antarctic interests and decisions. The U.S. Congress has not considered long-standing U.S. agreements made about Antarctica, specifically Measure 4 (2004), Annex VI (2005), and Measure 15 (2009), which deal broadly with environmental and tourism matters. Approving and implementing legislation for those topics would have no U.S. budgetary implications, could be bipartisan, and would not face opposition. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has done excellent work to promote the safety of U.S. personnel working in Antarctica, but no other House or Senate committees are asking why those individuals are there, what the broad U.S. interests are, or what the capabilities and intentions of other countries in the region are. Congress could review the full range of U.S. activities and interests in the region, similar to what both the Australian and UK parliaments are currently doing.

William Muntean III is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.