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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"The question of mineral exploitation hasn't gone away in Antarctica," says Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist in polar politics at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.Skip to next paragraph
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As the Antarctic Treaty has grown in recent decades, some nations eager to join it and build bases in Antarctica appear to have long-term interest in the continent's mineral and energy resources. A number of countries fall equally within this category, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, China, Korea, and India – but as a Mandarin speaker, Ms. Brady has performed an especially large number of interviews and reviews of government documents in China. "The mainstream point of view" in China, she says, "is that it's only a matter of time that Antarctic minerals and energy resources will be exploited."
Conditions in Antarctica will be tough, but rising commodity prices and improving technology may eventually make it worthwhile, says Brady: "People whom I've talked to in China about this issue, they're confident that the technology will be worked out."
These discussions of resources fly beneath the radar, confined to a country's native language, but signs surface now and then. For example, there were reports published in 2013 by Ukrainian scientists prospecting for offshore natural gas in Antarctica. If minerals or hydrocarbons are harvested even decades from now, the land claims, human settlements, and symbolism employed by countries like Argentina and Chile will make sense. "It builds up arguments for a future that the Antarctic Treaty will be renegotiated," Avango says of a time when territory claims that the treaty put in limbo could well be revived.
The US has no territorial claim in Antarctica but maintains the right to make one in the future – and has by far the largest research footprint there: McMurdo Station alone houses 20 percent of the continent's 4,400 summer inhabitants. McMurdo is nourished by a tenuous lifeline: Two ships each summer deliver 7 million gallons of fuel and 10 million pounds of food and supplies. The ships could never make it if not for an icebreaker that clears a path through six feet of sea ice choking McMurdo Sound. But from 2006 to 2013, the US possessed only two functional icebreakers – forcing it to hire vessels from Sweden and Russia for this vital task. And in October, the US Antarctic Program faced an undignifying setback as the government shutdown disrupted cargo flights and summer preparations at McMurdo – canceling or postponing research projects that had been planned for half a decade.
Every nation that hopes to play a role in shaping the future of the poles – whether for exploitation, territory, or conservation – will require certain strategic assets: scientific research that maintains prestige and expertise; well-placed ports, airfields, and research bases in the polar regions; experience landing and launching large military cargo planes on glacial ice; and, of course, icebreakers. Negotiating a future for the poles will take decades, beyond the oft-shortsighted view of politics, elections, and funding cycles. But the outcome of that process could be profound, influencing the world's political, economic, and environmental order for a century to come.
• Douglas Fox is a northern California based science and environmental writer whose work has appeared in the annual anthology "The Best American Science and Nature Writing," as well as in the Monitor, National Geographic, Nature, and Scientific American. His last trip to Antarctica – a two-month expedition in 2013 with scientists looking for life in subglacial Lake Whillans – was funded by the National Science Foundation.