South Africa is the only African country with a scientific base in Antarctica and is ideally located for research on the South Atlantic Anomaly – an area where aircraft, ships and satellites are exposed to increased radiation from space which leads to the interruption of, and damage to, communication systems.
The South African National Space Agency (SANSA), an entity of the Department of Science and Technology, is a key player in the South African National Antarctic Programme, and has several ongoing space science and space weather-related projects in Antarctica, as well as Marion and Gough Islands.
SANSA Space Science is currently responsible for monitoring the space environment over the Southern African region, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and the South Pole. It is part of a global network of similar organisations throughout the world.
Addressing the South Africa-Norway Science week discussions on the Antarctic region, Dr Pierre Cilliers, a researcher at SANSA, said the organisation was particularly interested in polar research since the inward-curving magnetic lines at the pole provided the perfect opportunity to do space particle research. Research conducted by SANSA includes the monitoring of space weather to provide data related to the effect of space weather on communication satellites.
The project involves the installation and maintenance of scientific instruments in Antarctica, Marion Island and Gough Island, and is supported by the South African National Antarctic Programme, with logistical support provided by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Dr Cilliers outlined the importance of doing space science in Antarctica, to better understand space weather and geomagnetic storm mechanisms.
"This will allow more effective prediction of storm intensity and better mitigation actions to be taken," said Dr Cilliers, adding that the South African National Antarctic Expedition (SANAE) IV's strategic location close to the South Atlantic Anomaly made the data invaluable for geospace observations.
Norway and South Africa have a long history of cooperation in the Antarctic region, and both countries are members of the Antarctic Treaty System, which regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth's only continent without a native human population.
Norway's ambassador to South Africa, Ms Trine Skymoen, said the two countries had a common interest in the responsible management of the Southern Ocean within the framework of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
The Commission was established by international convention in 1982 with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life. This was in response to increasing commercial interest in Antarctic krill resources, a keystone component of the Antarctic ecosystem, and a history of over-exploitation of several other marine resources in the Southern Ocean.
"Cape Town and South Africa already function as a gateway for Norwegian activities in the Antarctic. We are seeking to deepen and broaden the ties that already exist," said the Ambassador.
Dr Andrew Lowther of the Norwegian Polar Institute made a presentation on ecosystem research of the Southern Ocean. According to him, research here should focus on climate change effects and ensuring the best possible science is used to manage the commercial exploitation of resources in the Antarctic.
"Norway is rated third in the world for Arctic research but number 21 in Antarctic research. The country can do more in terms of Antarctic science in collaboration with its neighbours," said Dr Lowther.
He said there was enormous potential to advance scientific understanding of a region identified as being on the frontline of change, and an enormous opportunity for South Africa and Norway to play a leading role as "regional ecologists" in the area.