Who Owns Antarctica?
Took a long walk on the black volcanic sand beach inside the caldera of Deception Island this afternoon. Past massive rusted fuel storage tanks, whale oil processors and the fallen down wooden huts crushed in relatively recent years by volcanic eruptions. Once home to whalers, piles of wooden barrels (built by imported cooper smiths to carry whale oil back to South America and Europe, until the 1940s), randomly dropped whalebones and the rusted hulk of a floating dry dock are all accompanied by the odiferous sulfur vents of the still-active volcano.
Deception – like all the South Shetland Islands – was part of the British Antarctica Territory, back when countries honored each other’s claims to the seventh continent.
All that ended in 1959, when originally twelve countries signed the international treaty that still governs the place. Today there are 52 signators to the treaty, which was last amended in a big way in 1991, in part to address growing concerns over the continent’s environmental protection. The new protocol specifically banned all oil and mineral exploitation in Antarctica until 2041.
In the next few months a small hullabaloo will be heard in the hallways of the treaty member offices because the U.K., Chile and Argentina have submitted new claims to nearly one-quarter of the continent. Here’s why: In May 2009 the U.N. Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf meets to consider new applications. Those limits grant territories and states ‘ownership’ up to 350 miles out to sea from shore.
Until recently, no one has worried about who owns the continental shelf down here. It’s cold and icy most of the year, the temperature of the sea hovers just below freezing year-round and the whole seascape is most often studded with icebergs a half-mile long and ten stories tall.
But that’s all changing. Air temps are warming and so is the surface of the sea, which means the Peninsula’s ice is slowly melting. Today many suggest Antarctica is simply too remote and too difficult to exploit for oil, etc.
But that’s based on life on planet earth today, as we know it. Look to the future, towards 2041 … when the amendment regarding mineral exploitation is to be renewed. The planet’s human population will have jumped from 6.7 billion today to 9 billion. Even if incredible leaps in alternative energy are made, by then the planet’s oil reserves may well be tapped. And the ice along Antarctica’s Peninsula may have dissipated.
That combination – less ice, more worldwide demand for oil – could make for a new calculation regarding the practicality of coming to Antarctica to drill. With that as backdrop, think about why the U.K., Chile and Argentina want to get on record NOW in regard to who owns what. The more specific their claims are now the more ammunition they’ll have in the future if deep sea drilling, and other kinds, are one day possible here.
Things have come a long way from the whaling economy, which until the 1940s was the major industry in Antarctica, going back about sixty years. Who knows what challenges the continent will face six decades from now.
Photos, Fiona Stewart