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Antarctica under siege

Stunning beauty and the promise of oil and minerals are bringing more people to the once-pristine continent.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2006


At the bottom of the world, more than two miles beneath the wind-blasted surface of Antarctica, sits a wonder of the last untouched continent.

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Locked deep in the Antarctic ice is Lake Vostok, the seventh-largest body of fresh water in the world, yet one that has never been glimpsed by human eyes. To scientists, it is nothing less than an alien world, where the surroundings are so extreme that they could harbor previously undiscovered forms of life.

Yet just 420 feet above its unseen surface, a Russian drill is poised, ready to break through and potentially pollute a pristine and unique environment.

The Russians' goal is scientific, but it points to a growing threat in the Great White South, as a new boom of activity erodes Antarctica's isolation. Once the domain of doughty explorers such as Scott and Shackleton, Antarctica is becoming increasingly crowded by curious tourists, spellbound scientists, and countries hungry for oil and minerals.

Though mining is banned until 2048, more nations are in a race to gain a toehold on the continent now – hoping to secure a voice when and if the world decides to divide up Antarctica's spoils.

"By being at the table, they are able to influence negotiations over future developments in Antarctica," says Marcus Haward, an Antarctica policy expert at the University of Tasmania. "It's a case of being inside the tent when the key decisions are made."

Already, countries are jockeying for position in the event that soaring oil prices and a world energy crisis lead to the relaxation of the ban.

Though only seven countries claim territory on Antarctica – Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, Norway, and New Zealand – other signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty can build scientific stations, and many have stepped up their efforts recently. China and India have plans to add to the 59 permanent and seasonal bases in Antarctica, as do Estonia, Belgium, and South Korea.

Not surprisingly, the changes have caused some ripples. India recently announced that it wants to build a new base in the Larsemann Hills, in an area that has been designated construction-free by international consent.

More generally, the transition from the cramped timber huts of a century ago to high-tech scientific bases of today has caused consternation across Antarctica. As husky dogs and sledges give way to modern means of transportation, the United States has blazed a 1,000-mile-long "ice highway" from its McMurdo station on the coast to the South Pole.

The track will be used to haul hundreds of tons of equipment across ice fields and crevasses. To Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, it goes against the pristine ethic of Antarctica.

"I think it's terrible," the New Zealander said of the highway two years ago, condemning the environmental impact of the multimillion dollar project.