Custodians of the Ice

At the southernmost reaches of the globe, five ‘Antarctic cities’ are discovering a shared identity in relation to a fragile frozen continent.

Western Sydney University is leading an initiative for five diverse cities to unite around one commonality: their ties to the Antarctic.

Five key cities surround Antarctica and are officially recognised as gateways to the ice continent: Christchurch (New Zealand), Puntas Arenas (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), Cape Town (South Africa), and Hobart, Australia. Professor Juan Francisco Salazar, of Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society and the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, has led the Australian Research Council Linkage Project, Antarctic Cities and Global Commons, since 2017. The project team includes 15 researchers in five countries, and aims to unite these gateway cities as a Southern Ocean rim cooperative network of Antarctic urban hubs.

“We want to think of these five cities as more than thoroughfares on the way to Antarctica, rather as urban centres embodying the values of Antarctica — international co-operation, scientific innovation and environmental protection — as a custodianship network that can learn from and benefit each other,” Salazar says.

Developing such a network is a twofold challenge. First, the initiative must strengthen each city’s ties to the Antarctic on economic, ecological, political and cultural levels, and secondly their ties to each other, overcoming historic separation and rivalries.

Need to know

  • Five southern hemisphere cities are gateways to the Antarctic.
  • An ARC Linkage project team seeks to unite these cities into a cooperative network
  • The cities’ youth are being recruited to lead the initiative.

In Hobart, Salazar’s collaborator, Professor Elizabeth Leane, from the College of Arts, Law and Education, University of Tasmania, says magnifying each city’s Antarctic ties will require a genuine cultural shift in the cities. “We’re essentially creating a series of tools for the councils to use from this project. We’re encouraging people who are connected with the Antarctic sector to think really carefully about cultural components,” Leane says.

Bringing the cities together for a united purpose poses an array of obstacles. “On many occasions the cities chose to compete for scarce resources and international investments, rather than find ways to cooperate and share resources,” says Salazar. A memorandum of understanding was signed in 2009 by city mayors requiring the cities to explore the benefits of collaborative best-practices for Antarctica. However, as Salazar notes, the substantive relationship between these cities remains tenuous. The project aims to address these issues, and the first step has been to engage young people.

Alongside an online, educational game Antarctic Futures, led by Associate Professor Liam Magee, simulating Antarctic policy decisions on a 50-year scale, an Antarctic Cities Youth Forum is also being launched. Through an expedition to Antarctica in February 2020, five exceptional young people from each city will travel to the frozen continent to develop the guidelines for a youth custodian network.

The initiative aims to recast these five cities from simply north-serving gateways at a far-flung periphery, into five capitals of a new united focus on the Antarctic. Together, they might then become true custodians of a fragile region, celebrating and stewarding this vital part of our planet.

Meet the Academic | Professor Juan Francisco Salazar

Dr Juan Francisco Salazar is an environmental and media anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. He is a Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society. He has been a University Research Theme Champion (Environment and Sustainability) since 2016. From 2020 he is an Australian Research Future Fellow.

Juan is best known for his substantive body of work and contribution to studies of indigenous media practices in Chile and Latin America. His current research and teaching is in the fields of social-environmental change; social studies of science; documentary film; futures and socio-technical imaginaries; and cultural research in Antarctica and Outer Space.


This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

© VikiVector/Russia/Getty Images ©  Elizabeth Leane, University of Tasmania. © Ruben Earth/Moment/Getty Images
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.