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South Korea to set up research base in Antarctica

Saturday 6 Jul 2013 6:54 p.m.

South Korea is expanding its presence in Antarctica and Kiwi science stands to benefit.

The country is halfway through building what will be its second polar research station in Antarctica.

It's at Terra Nova Bay, 300 kilometres away from New Zealand researchers at Scott Base.

South Korea is now a major player in Antarctic research. It's billion-dollar ice breaker will soon be taking scientists to Jang Bogo, the country's newest polar base at Terra Nova Bay.

It's still being built, but when it's finished in March next year, it will accommodate up to 60 staff.

"At least the last six to seven years, the Korean Government has spent around US$300 million for Antarctic research," says Dr Yeadong Kim, director of the new Antarctic station.

That's not including the development of research centres in South Korea itself. One building that opened just over one month ago is indicative of how serious Korea's government is about investing in polar science. There are six floors of labs in the building alone.

Scientists are examining tiny antarctic plants and animals. With the completion of the new station, Korea hopes to drill into the ice core to learn more about climate change, and they'll be working alongside New Zealand.

"The ice preserves an amazing record of how climate has changed," says Professor Bryan Storey, University of Canterbury's Gateway Antarctica director. "The record at present takes us back about 700,000 years.

"The New Zealand government has signed an agreement with Korea to work collaboratively, to share resources and to develop some joint research programmes, so it's a high-level initiative."

Korea's new station will add to a growing number of nations who have permanent bases in Antarctica. There are 34 in total.

The continent is believed to have huge oil and gas reserves. Exploiting resources is banned until at least 2048, and Korea and New Zealand say it should stay that way.

Korea lacks natural resources and is highly dependent on imported energy, but the director of the new station says Korea's interest in Antarctica is purely scientific.

"My personal view is that we are better to keep it as it is now," says Dr Kim. "There's only one place in the world that remains so natural."

The natural wonders of the continent, and joint climate and biology projects, will be discussed further when 11 Kiwi scientists head to South Korea next month.

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