The frozen desert continent, known as Antarctica, is a mostly uninhabitable region with a total land area of 5.4 million square miles. But, only 280,000 sq. km is ice-free. The coldest & driest continent on Earth has no indigenous inhabitants, although it is home to more than 4,000 scientists and ship crew, hailing from different countries. Human activities in this ice-continent are governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), which has been in force since 1959. The treaty states that Antarctic continent is devoted to peace and science.
Forty-eight treaty member countries have been accumulated into the ATS, but there are no commercial undertakings at the moment. Although seven nations including Australia & UK (Australia claims 42 percent of the continent) have long-standing territorial claims to Antarctica, none of the claims have been recognized under the International law. Geologically, the continent remains least explored in the world, but with improving technology, the possibility of opening up the continent for commercial activities is already causing a commotion among the treaty members.
The ATS prohibits mining in the Antarctic area for an indefinite time period. Many member nations hope that the treaty would be revised in the year 2048. The Madrid Protocol was adopted by all nations, which signed Antarctic treaty. Article seven of Madrid Protocol is said to state that ‘any activity relating to mineral resources is prohibited, other than scientific research’. But, mining experts & even environmentalists are convinced that the ban would be overturned, if there was an errant necessity for minerals.
According to general principles of tectonic plates, mineral & mining experts believe that metalliferous fold belts that are found in African, Australian, and South American continents continue into Antarctica. Common organic minerals such as coal, oil, gas and precious minerals like diamond have been located, but the experts also believe that even if 50 year moratorium on mineral exploration is withdrawn, there are some practical difficulties in extracting minerals from Antarctica. Transportation costs, dangerous terrain, and the continent’s distance from industrialized areas will pose huge challenge for corporates along with robust resistance from environmental organizations like Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature.
China is the recent country to want a large piece of this great continent’s mineral and biological wealth. The country has recently launched its fourth Antarctic Research Center ‘Taishan’, and a fifth one might be opened within the end of this year. It is vital to note that Beijing didn’t care about launching Antarctic research base until 1985, but now Chinese efforts to expand its influence across Antarctic is outpacing other nations’ plans. The observers of Antarctic affairs believe that the research facilities are just a guise to gain a strategic upper-hand in case the region is opened to commercial drilling. China’s current economic growth could place it at an unrivaled position by the 2040’s in Polar Regions, although US & Australia may strongly challenge China’s claim.
If the mineral exploitation is allowed in the Polar Regions in near future, the resulting environmental impact would totally annihilate the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica. The terrestrial ecosystem in this ice-continent is restricted within 2 percent ice-free land parts, and these lands would be definitely taken for building infrastructures to conduct mineral activity. Later, the adjacent ocean environment would be affected by leaching of chemicals and by definite possibility of oil spills.
The inevitable commercialization of Antarctic Circle in the future would also create conflicts on who should actually share in the benefits of commercialization. The mineral sources we now rely on these days will have passed their peak, and so all eyes will be turning to Antarctica. The technological advances and the cost and feasibility of the mineral exploitation will be much more realistic, 20 years from now. It is going to be lot harder for powerful governments to take a decision to not butcher the relatively pristine environment of Antarctica.