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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.

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Getting to Antarctica is also becoming easier, with South Africa planning to establish an air link across the Southern Ocean, and Australia building an ice runway at its Casey base. The two-mile-long runway, which will start operating next year, will accommodate planes from Hobart, Tasmania, enabling scientists to avoid a grueling sea passage. The 2,140 mile flight will take around 10 hours.

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While the number of scientists in Antarctica is still relatively small, the number of tourists is increasing by 15 percent a year, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Drawn by sculpted blue glaciers, huge penguin colonies, and extraordinary landscapes, more than 30,000 tourists visited the continent last summer, compared with 5,000 visitors in 1990.

Some boats carry as many as 800 passengers and have helicopters to whisk high-paying clients to previously unvisited areas. With no regulation of tourism under the Antarctic Treaty, activists are concerned. "Mass commercial tourism has arrived in the Antarctic," reports the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a watchdog group in Washington. "There is essentially no constraint on where you can go, what you can do, and how many of you can do it."

While most tourists return from Antarctica with a sense of awe at the continent's beauty and isolation, one recent visitor came back with a rather different view. Barnaby Joyce, a conservative MP in the Australian parliament, went on a fact-finding trip to Antarctica and on his return declared that Canberra should think about mining the frozen continent. Australia claims 42 percent of Antarctica.

"What you have to ask is, 'Do I turn my head and allow another country to exploit my resource, or do I position myself in such a way that I'm going to exploit it myself before they get there?' " said Senator Joyce.

His suggestion was condemned by all the main political parties. But the senator was not alone in casting an envious eye over the vast reserves of gas and coal that are believed to lie beneath the ice.

Mining is explicitly banned, and most experts believe that it would be prohibitively expensive to mine, process, and transport minerals from Antarctica.

For now the only drilling taking place is the Russian experiment at Lake Vostok, and that is controversial enough.

When the issue was discussed at the most recent Antarctic Treaty meeting in Edinburgh in June, "there was a great deal of environmental disquiet," says Tony Press, head of the Australian Antarctic Division. "Some scientists said it's not necessary to penetrate the lake at all, that the Russians could instead take samples from the ice close to the lake."

Russia has assured critics that a similar operation to drill into a subglacial lake in Greenland caused no pollution. But the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition is unconvinced that the kerosene used to lubricate the drill will not despoil the lake.

"There is a compelling reason to reassess all drilling activity," the coalition advised at the June meeting of the Antarctic Treaty. "Any risk to [the lake] ... is unacceptable."