The Warmer It Gets, The Better Those Minerals Look


They call Antarctica "The Big Pav" — white, rich, and claimed by both Australia and New Zealand. But despite being drooled over, carved up, and covered with little flags (several other nations also have formal territorial claims over the continent), this is one pavlova that’s never been dished up.

The reason is the Antarctic Treaty, an international accord that sets the continent aside as a scientific preserve, forbidding military activity, promoting multinational research, and neither recognising nor disputing territorial claims; effectively, Antarctica is formally owned by everyone and no-one.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the treaty, signed by 12 nations in Washington on 1 December 1959, and coming into force two years later. Since then, a further 35 countries have signed what is widely regarded as an unprecedented and remarkably successful example of scientific endeavour triumphing over nationalistic rivalries and short-term economic gains.

"The Treaty has been an extraordinary success," says Tom Griffiths, Professor of History at the ANU and author of the award winning Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica. "It has facilitated scientific research and international cooperation and it has minimised discord, especially over claims and sovereignty. In this sense I think it offers a model for the globe."

When compared with other attempts at international management, especially in the heavily militarised Arctic, the level of cooperation is remarkable. The Treaty has a long history of fostering dialogue between nations that further north weren’t on speaking terms; even at the height of the Cold War there are stories of Soviet and American scientists happily collaborating on research projects before retiring to their huts to down shots of vodka under the disapproving gaze of portraits of Khrushchev or Kennedy.

But on the very day the treaty’s 50 years of success were remembered a report was released highlighting a possible threat to its long-term sustainability. Conducted by the British-based Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), it found that while ozone loss has shielded the continent’s surface from global warming, the temperature of the nearby ocean is increasing at a rate faster than previously expected, accelerating the loss of Antarctic ice, especially in the west of the continent.

This thaw has the potential to radically alter Antarctica’s geopolitical climate, for with retreating glaciers and melting ice comes increased access to vast coal and iron ore deposits, as well as offshore oil. While the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty of 1991 forbids "any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research," it is the sheer inaccessibility of these resources — buried deep beneath the ice — that has historically saved them from exploitation.

But with the ban on mining due to expire in 2048, (assuming no-one violates it before then) and mineral accessibility increasing with every summer, there are signs the Polar players are already starting to stake their claims should a resource scramble ensue.

In recent years France and Italy have dramatically increased funding for Antarctic research, while last summer China built a huge base — its third — in the middle of Australia’s Antarctic Territory, sovereignty for which Beijing doesn’t recognise and under the conditions of the treaty doesn’t have to. Officially these nations are racing to find another treasure, a one million-year-old ice core that could hold the key to understanding climate change. But some suspect another reason.

"Why all of a sudden," asked Dr Edi Albert from Australia’s Casey Station in a remarkably candid interview with the ABC earlier this year, "are we finding other nations suddenly contributing millions of dollars in equivalent to building new stations? The answer can’t just be science can it? It’s about minerals."

Australia isn’t absolved from such ulterior motives. With a 42 per cent claim on the continent, Canberra is also in line to gain from mineral exploitation, and Dr Albert believes Australian scientists are partially being deployed to the continent in order to sit on this nest of golden eggs. "I think what most people who’ve been in and out of the [Australian] Antarctic Division or their equivalents are fairly convinced that it’s about minerals," he said.

Not surprisingly, the official response from Canberra to these developments  is somewhat different. Penny Richards is a senior legal adviser at DFAT who has headed the Australian delegation to the last three annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative meetings, the forum through which the accord is administered. When asked by whether the Australian Government suspects interest in minerals is behind the recent surge in international Antarctic activity, she simply said "Australia welcomes initiatives by Treaty Parties to enhance their scientific research in Antarctica, which is particularly valuable in understanding and responding to complex issues such as climate change."

Either way, the same cordial relations that have categorised the history of the Antarctic Treaty seem to be continuing.

"It’s an interesting double game," Griffiths notes. "What is fascinating is that everyone knows that this kind of game is being played but just gets on with the business of cooperative scientific endeavour." But for how long?

The pre-treaty history of the Antarctic showed how determined countries could be in an unregulated environment. In the fiercely nationalistic years leading up to World War II, the great southern continent was the setting for a sweeping land grab which the Adelaide Advertiser compared to the scramble for Africa. Flags were raised and removed by numb fingers across Antarctica, while in 1939 hundreds of cast-iron swastikas were dropped on the ice from German aeroplanes in an attempt to secure a stake for the Fuhrer. At one stage in 1952, Argentine soldiers even fired live ammunition over the heads of a team of British scientists trying to land at Hope Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula; the following year British authorities would retaliate by dismantling Chilean and Argentine buildings on the Antarctic Peninsula.

But six years later the treaty was signed, and with it all territorial claims (some of which overlap) went into a kind of freeze. The seven claimant nations under that treaty — Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, France, Norway and Britain — continued to conduct research in their territories, but their sovereignty was only recognised by themselves. Should the treaty fail to be renegotiated in 2041, a second tussle for sovereignty may ensue not just between these claimants, but also other powers with an Antarctic presence such as America, Italy, Russia and China.

Currently, the only way to increase political influence in the treaty system is through investment in science and by taking an active role in the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings. By increasing their investment in science, countries like Italy and China are thus currently strengthening their Antarctic presence in preparation for a post-treaty world.

This isn’t the first time the treaty has been placed under stress. In 1983 a group of Asian nations, led by Malaysia, unsuccessfully argued before the UN General Assembly that the treaty was a relic of colonialism, and that Antarctica should instead be managed by the United Nations.

But it was later that decade the treaty faced — and survived — its sternest test. The oil crisis of the 1970s having prompted Antarctica to be regarded as a possible source of fossil fuels, in the 1980s the number of treaty signatories dramatically increased as governments marked their interest in what lay beneath the ice. In 1988, treaty states agreed to adopt the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, an agreement that flirted with the possibility of resource exploitation. However, three years later, after intense opposition from Australia and Greenpeace, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Madrid, resulting in the current 50-year mining ban.

Richard Woolcott was a close observer of both threats to the treaty, first as Australian Ambassador to the UN at the time of the Malaysian challenge, and then as Secretary of DFAT during the mining debate of the 1980s. Recalling those days, he thinks these threats demonstrated "that one system — the UN — works less effectively than I had hoped, probably because of its sheer size, while the other system — the Antarctic Treaty — works more effectively than I had expected."

But the 21st century poses new threats. With ice receding and oil prices soaring, what future is likely for Antarctica and the treaty that protects it? Tom Griffiths sees two likely outcomes. "One is that Antarctica, ‘the last continent’, will slowly but surely follow the paths of the others. Inexorably, it will be colonised and compromised, thereby reducing its difference. The other scenario is that, as the 21st century globe becomes more intensively inhabited and utilised, ‘the crystal desert’ will become even more highly valued as another world where different rules apply. Antarctica might become a kind of secular shrine; a realm where the finest human values are given space and voice."

For the second scenario to eventuate, the world must continue to resist tucking into "The Big Pav".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.