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Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game

Antarctica and the Arctic are the focus of global hunger for untapped resources – and global warming has helped drive the polar rush.

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Last month, the Russian company Gazprom began oil production from the world's first offshore Arctic drilling project. The site, called Prirazlomnoye, is modest, consisting of one drilling platform situated in just 60 feet of water in the Barents Sea, in some of the mildest Arctic waters. But it was a major undertaking. The platform amounts to a fortress, strengthened against ice, sitting directly on the seafloor.

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While Russia and Norway continue to explore the Barents Sea, Dr. Moe doesn't expect any other offshore drilling in Alaska, Canada, or Greenland to begin production before 2020. Even onshore Arctic drilling will require massive investment. A liquefied natural gas project planned for Russia's remote northern Yamal Peninsula will use 16 tankers to ferry gas across the NSR – each ship an icebreaker unto itself, able to plow through five feet of ice at 5 miles per hour, burning more than $10,000 of fuel per day.

All of this speaks to a simple truth, says Dr. Brigham: "There are tremendous opportunities to link the Arctic to world markets." He suspects that even commodities like fresh water stored in Arctic lakes and glaciers could eventually find buyers around the globe.

And contrary to themes expressed in the media, this push into the Arctic is being driven at least as much by global demand and depletion of resources closer to home as by climate change or loss of sea ice.

Antarctica differs vastly from the Arctic. The Arctic consists largely of a sea covered by ice that averages six feet thick, fringed by the northernmost territories of three continents; the Antarctic consists of a lone continent isolated by a ring of turbulent seas. While Arctic sea ice is disappearing quickly, the continent of Antarctica is 98 percent covered by glacial ice thousands of feet thick; it contains most of the world's fresh water. Even as Antarctica sheds 200 billion tons of ice per year, contributing to sea-level rise, the immediate effect on human activity there is negligible.

Despite these differences, similar economic and political forces are converging on Antarctica. The signs are obvious at its closest geographic gateway, the tip of South America.

The South Pole Monopoly game

An hour south of Punta Arenas, Chile, a blue sign stands alongside the coastal road. That sign says, "CENTRO GEOGRAFICO DEL PAIS" – marking the north-south midpoint of Chile. Never mind that it sits on the southernmost road of the South American mainland, just a few miles short of where the pavement dwindles to a strip of tire-rutted beach sand. Never mind that the continent itself ends just 180 miles farther south in a series of forlorn stone pinnacles battered by the waves.

That sign makes sense only if you consider one key fact: It counts a large pie-slice of Antarctica as Chilean territory, stretching from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, all the way to the South Pole. Maps on the walls of schools and libraries throughout Chile show this bicontinental version of the nation's geography. TV weather forecasts even report temperatures at Chilean research stations in Antarctica, and the TV weatherman gestures at maps showing storm fronts rolling over not only the South American mainland, but also the Antarctic Peninsula.


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