Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent, with 98% of it’s landmass covered in ice, averaging 1.6 km deep. The environment here is inhospitable, contains the largest desert in the world, and is on average the coldest, windiest, and driest continent, and also has the average highest elevation. and is thus the only continent without a native population. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by (now) 46 countries, with the aims to preserve Antarctica, and allow scientific exploration in a sustainable way; this did not include any discussion of mining, for fear of jeopardizing the treaty. This was followed, and by the 1991 Protocol on Environmental protection to the antarctic treaty, finally ratified by 27 parties in 1998.
Article seven of this clearly states mining or other exploitation, except for scientific gain, is banned; article 27 states that this may not be repealed unless a future treaty establishes a ‘binding, regulatory framework’ for such activity. In 2048, the indefinite ban on mining, included in the Madrid Protocol is due for review; however at least 3/4 of the 46 signatories must agree to this. As worthwhile as the substances under the ice may be, we must not forget Antarctica is one of the world’s last wildernesses, a rare and fragile ecosystem, including Gentoo, Rockhopper, King, Chinstrap and Adlie Penguins, as well as rare seals and albatrosses as well as ‘Extremophiles’, predominantly bacteria, with abilities to withstand extremes of environment; these may prove useful to 21st century science such as antibiotics and industrial products.
The Madrid Protocol should, in my opinion, be kept intact, and the ban on exploiting the Antarctic kept in place. Even though the minerals in Antarctica are often in such small quantities that the means required to extract them becomes uneconomically viable in the current climate; as time goes on, the demand will soon increase prices, and improvements in technology decreases extraction costs, such as the rapid decrease in the price of sulphur after the Frasch process was implemented. This will lead to future demand, especially of minerals, such as Molybdenum, used not only as an alloy in current steel production, but that is also of interest in the manufacture of future materials, such as superalloys.
The largest issue perhaps is that of the upcoming ‘Energy Crisis’, that has seen the price of oil reach $120.36 per barrel(05/05/08.) Previously, oil exploration was considered unsustainable as it would cost $100 a barrel simply to extract it, however this price seems small in the current climate, putting increasing pressure on Antarctica as a resource. There is another school of thought that says that as we deplete other areas of oil, we will have the ability to harvest other forms of energy such as geothermal power and nuclear fusion; however, as we seem to not be advancing as rapidly as perhaps expected, it seems that there will be a push into more remote areas for the ‘black gold.’
Another resource that could possible be exploited is the ice itself, which apparently contains 90% of the world’s freshwater, currently this could be used as a stopgap measure for countries experiencing severe drought, such as Mauritania, due to ITCZ movement and depleted groundwater supplies. More likely, however is unfortunately the movement to countries whose groundwater supplies may have been polluted due to heavy industrialization, such as in China, where 90% of all cities have some degree of groundwater pollution.
The ban on exploitation was in my mind, a well thought out and implemented plan, and should be forever kept. Rather than trying to find new, temporary areas to develop in order to gain access to resources; we should explore sustainable pathways and reuse current stocks, such as the filtering of Platinum from roadside sources; a byproduct of catalytic converters, to be reused, saving the Siberian rocks currently used to harvest such a precious metal.
To call the Antarctica sacred is an odd choice of words, however I would agree based on the definition forwarded by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (Bateson and Donald, 1991) of a perceived “‘sacred unity’ underlying and tying together the biosphere, and [humankind’s] inclusion within it.” I would disagree that it is sacred based on the definition of ‘devoted to a single use, purpose or person; this definition contradicts all treaties involving Antarctica, and defies all logic based on the worldwide haven view of Antarctica. ‘Antarctica is a very special area of the Earth, and thus should not be called sacred, by standards of modern religion, but sacred because it has not been scarred or ruined by mankind, but is a special area open to everyone and no one, if not to visit, then to know that it is there; and to be aware that there is one place in the world, where we can set aside differences and political agendas, to concentrate on science, bettering humanity, preserving rare species and learning more about the planet we live on. Which, in my opinion, is more sacred, and deserving of our full respect, than any religious relic or alter.
To say Antarctica only belongs to Science is as damaging as saying it only should belong to miners, or environmentalists. It typecasts a group of people with varying goals, morals and procedures, and calls that a class. All science is, is using scientific method to reason, and test hypotheses, until we can explain observed phenomena and form theories based on that which is observed. What use is science without a practical application? To know that the population of a species is falling is nothing without a plan to prevent further loss. Nor is knowing how much oil is in the ground without at least a strategy to exploit those reserves. Science for science’s sake is rarely done, and if it is, it will almost always be particle physics research, for curiosity’s sake, and to understand the big questions, why are we here? How are we here? Where are we?… Or will have a practical application in the future.
If we suggest that the Antarctic is the domain of people ‘qualified enough’ to visit, we will isolate the very people it is here for; the population of the world… Recent scientific discoveries made in the Antarctic include two species of dinosaurs previously unknown to mankind, the realisation that two basins of the same under-ice lake may have different wanter chemistry, and the fact that the genetic material found in both 6,000 year old and today’s Adlie penguins, is very similar, and thus that perhaps giant iceberg migration caused this. Not to trivialize, but science in the Antarctic is obviously not particularly important to the general world today, so this begs the question as to if science is needed in the Antarctic at all. In a world where more than 854 million people are going hungry; some of whom may never have even heard of the Antarctic, is putting so much money and resources into an uninhabited continent morally or ethically right? Will telling ourselves that it may well one day be a ‘World Park’, due to science, help us sleep better at night? Whose world is this, anyway?
To save the ice is presumably a nod to climate change. Temperatures from the Antarctic continent are obviously harder to get than in countries such as the UK. Therefore the only reliable data has been from the last 20 years. This shows no particular pattern, the area where the Larson B ice shelf used to be has increased in temperature, but the few stations in the interior of the island have actually cooled. Bertler et Al (2004) described a slight warming of Antarctica over the last 40 years, however there really needs to be more data for statistical significance, many other factors may affect the temperatures recorded including the Southern Annular Mode (Thompson and Solomon, 2004), which has caused stronger winds in the last few years, which stop warmer air reaching Antarctica. Another factor is that climates work differently in both hemispheres, and principals that work in the northern hemisphere may not work at all in the south. There is no doubt that ice is melting (sea ice cover has decreased by 20% since 1979), and sea levels are changing. But to what extent, and to what extent the fault lies with humankind, is yet to be established fully.
The ice is worth saving, many creatures are very susceptible to even small fluctuations in ocean temperatures, for example at just two degrees warmer molluscs can no longer bury themselves in the seabed sediment and scallops can no longer swim. These minor changes can cause significant changes further up the food chain and disrupt the finely balanced ecosystem. The sea surrounding the Antarctic now has higher concentrations of salt in the upper levels of water, which lowers the freezing point, disallowing it to form ice in all but the most extreme cold temperatures (ice lowers the freezing point of water) this produces a system spiraling in negative feedback, because the ice would usually protect the water underneath by reflecting the sunlight. The ice should be protected, but if we are only protecting it from the inevitable, then perhaps; like coastal geographers have found; maybe the best strategy is to let nature take it’s course. The outcome is inevitable, and the world obviously managed fine before civilization came along.
Development in the antarctic seems to be sustainable (at least in the area itself), as the scientists ensure they take what they come with; however is more development really necessary? Just because we can develop such an expanse of land by no means means we should. This image shows all the countries with at least a seasonal base in Antarctica. Would not fewer, larger bases make more sense, with scientists working together to ensure research is not repeated. Up to 4,000 people live in the Antarctic during the summer; and much of this research could surely be carried out in cold labs in other countries, or even, for population sampling, by webcam or electronic tagging; greatly reducing the need for people to endanger the habitats of creatures there. Development without knowledge is a recipe for disaster; therefore I believe that it is the job of nations to come together for research purposes, and perhaps have a way to check new developments and ensure they are both sustainable and necessary given current and previous findings.
The protection currently in Antarctica is good, however there are still some worries; for example the allowance of sewage from research stations to be disposed of via the ocean.