Antarctica and its resident penguin community

Antarctica: the changing face of the White Continent

As ice thickness decreases and international agreements come up for renewal, the future of Antarctica could shift in emphasis from conservation to mineral exploration, while science is in danger of being pushed back to make way for more tourism.

At both ends of the Earth the polar icecaps are melting. To the north, as a reaction to the loss of ice volume, international interest in hydrocarbon exploration is on the increase. But while the race to explore the melting North gathers pace, down south in Antarctica retreating icecaps are gaining the attention of the extraction industries. The focus is shifting, and the last great wilderness might not be as safe from development as we once thought.

While ice loss in the world’s last great wilderness does not appear to be as dramatic as in the Arctic, low-lying ice and snow has melted, and ice shelves have collapsed notably in the West and along the Antarctic Peninsula. Climate change sceptics are quick to highlight rising ice levels in the southern Ross Sea region, but satellite imagery from the European Space Agency puts annual continental ice losses, since 2010, at 160 billion tonnes. Other studies estimate these losses to be around 100 billion tonnes since the early 1990s.

Given these developments, Professor Steven Chown, head of biological sciences at Monash University, Australia, believes Antarctic resource exploitation is now a strong possibility. Having published papers on Antarctic conservation in Science, Nature and more, he says: “The technology is developed to remove hydrocarbons and other resources from the Arctic, so now many are asking, what does this mean for the Antarctic?”

In theory, the answer should be, ‘not a lot’. Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty System, an international agreement that prohibits any activity relating to mining resources other than scientific research, the southern continent has remained relatively pristine.

But as Chown, and many others, are now pointing out, the treaty – due for review in 2048 – is coming under pressure. “There’s a real uneasiness that global geopolitical developments are going to push for increasing interest in Antarctica’s exploitation, rather than conservation,” he comments.

As Chown points out, several states have already approached the United Nations division for ocean affairs – the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf – expressing wishes to claim additional regions of the Antarctic Shelf beyond today’s territories. Meanwhile, for some nations, the line between scientific research and exploiting Antarctica’s natural resources could be becoming blurred. During an Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in June 2010, Russia stated its intention to prospect for minerals, oil and gas, and carry out “complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon and other natural resources”. As Chown puts it: “So they just said out loud to the Treaty, ‘well here it is, this is our aim’.”

And as the researcher adds, today’s lack of international collaboration at the continent’s research posts suggests conservation is not the key priority for some nations. “Given the expense of getting to Antarctica and the challenges of research here, you would think that nations would share stations and share costs, right?” he asks. “Well there’s only a few shared stations among European nations. Surely this tells you the facilities are built not only for science but to establish a geographical foot print in a region.”

Cash flows south

As countries seek greater geopolitical influence, nations worldwide have been upping investment in polar infrastructure to support Antarctic activities. The UK government, for one, recently unveiled plans to build a state-of-the-art polar research ship that will reinforce its presence in Antarctica. Meanwhile the Australian government is to procure a next-generation icebreaker to replace its existing, ageing model and support scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

South American nations are also building up Antarctic assets. Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador all have bases within the continent, and are upgrading these as well as modifying and building new polar ships. This is where some believe the real pressures on the treaty lie.

A recent report from Defense News plainly states that South America’s growing interest in Antarctica follows expectations that the Treaty’s exploitation restrictions will ease come 2048. As Chown puts it: “Countries are watching each other. Given the development of new research stations and facilities by all sorts of countries, there’s this growing realisation worldwide that there really is a very big and new geopolitical push in the Antarctic.”

For its part, proponents of the Antarctic Treaty System remain stoic. Following Chown’s Science paper, ‘Challenges to the future conservation of the Antarctic’, Professor Marcus Haward from the University of Tasmania and an Australian delegate to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, and colleagues, wrote a letter to the journal detailing how the treaty is robust, adaptable and ready for future challenges.

“All Antarctic Treaty Parties are bound by the Antarctic mining ban,” he wrote. “Mitigating unacceptable human impacts is a substantial focus for the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties... There is no evidence that human interest in Antarctica will outpace the capacity of the ATS to respond.”

Outpacing treaty restrictions or not, some Antarctica players believe the concerned researchers and interested nations may be acting too soon. Alain Hubert, polar explorer and founder of the International Polar Foundation, has spent the last Antarctic working seasons collecting climate data at the world’s first ‘zero emission’ research station, Princess Elisabeth Station Antarctica, for which he is expedition leader.

He believes climate change, and increased market demand, are likely to affect the continent’s fish stocks, but is less concerned about hydrocarbon and mineral exploitation. “The exploitation of hydrocarbons is a threat too far away in my mind,” he says. “The costs of developing oil fields in the Arctic are of questionable commercial viability and any attempt to exploit mineral resources offshore of the Antarctic continent would be sheer folly, given the amount of sea ice and the risk from floating icebergs.”

Hubert points out that life in Antarctica is unpredictable. Researchers at the Princess Elisabeth Station are busy examining, for example, ocean currents beneath floating ice shelves and micro-seismic activity from moving glaciers. But, he says, “the sea ice surrounding the continent is much thicker than usual and is impeding access for our re-supply ships. Our ship call is now almost five weeks later than it was six years ago".

“Clearly we already have issues just with keeping our land-based infrastructure fully operational,” he adds. “The challenges to any commercial enterprise would be the same yet the commodity values would need to be much higher to make this of economic interest.”

Like Chown, Hubert is well aware of the world’s rising interest in Antarctica, but remains unruffled, simply saying: “Yes, countries including Brazil, South Africa, China, Korea and India, are heavily investing... but this is not a sign that they wish to exploit natural resources.”

Instead, Hubert believes heightened activity is linked to national prestige and indicates these nations now have the economic maturity to spend more money on scientific research. He attributes claims on extensions to Antarctic continental shelves to “the usual posturing” in preparation for negotiations that no doubt will take place in the lead up to 2048. “Investing in the Antarctic is a way of positioning a country in these discussions,” he comments.

And Hubert has confidence in the Antarctic Treaty System. Highlighting its “extreme efficiency” in maintaining peaceful activities to date, he adds: “Antarctica is not a place where the economics of the market place can function; the value system is different. Any attempt to wrest any commercial value from Antarctic operations will meet with stiff resistance from the elements.”

Arctic route reality

Indeed, similar stiff resistance from the elements is what much of the Arctic’s industry is grappling with right now. According to James Bond, director of shared technologies, including Arctic research and development, at US-based marine and offshore classification organisation ABS, the number of ships designed for, and transiting, Arctic waters has increased.

But as he highlights, only the industry’s heavyweight bulk cargo ships and LNG carriers are taking to newly-opened shipping routes; other vessels such as container ships are avoiding these waters.

“Undoubtedly the big container lines have done their economic analysis and taken into account how potential delays from ice could impact their typically tight scheduling,” he says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in just how reliable a route is going to be and they just can’t afford that risk.”

Thanks to the reduced ice cover that has opened up these shipping routes, hard multi-year ice is now more mobile and increasingly difficult to navigate. “Imagine a piece of ice the size of a small car with 90 per cent of it below water; it’s pretty hard to detect,” explains Bond. “With the reduction in sea ice, we’re seeing more waves and more storms, so this ice is very hard to differentiate from the other surface features.”

And of course, more shipping in more hazardous waters also means more stress for crews, making additional training imperative. Bond’s colleague Todd Grove, chief technology officer at ABS, says: “There is concern among regulators that inappropriately strengthened vessels and inappropriately trained people could be taken into these waters.

“It’s not trivial to find people with the right experience,” he adds. “There’s been a lot of experience in light-ice conditions, in say, the Baltic, but the conditions are quite different in the Arctic.”

Right now, the International Maritime Organisation is developing a code of safety for ships operating in polar waters to address these and other issues. But as Grove points out, oil and gas sectors are already moving quickly into these waters and ABS is now looking closely at the safety of offshore production equipment as well as vessels.

“The cost of development remains high, but relatively speaking, it’s becoming more competitive [with other regions],” he says.

What could this mean for Antarctica? Only time will tell, but clearly change is afoot. Exploration aside, tourism to the continent is increasing. While numbers dipped alongside the global economy, statistics from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators clearly indicate visitor numbers are rising again.

Hubert notes advantages in this, saying: “Tourists have reduced the costs of science. In our case it is unlikely we could have built our station infrastructure without the reduction in costs of air transport that shared logistics have allowed.”

Chown agrees that tourism is increasingly taking place alongside research, pointing out: “Science budgets are under stress and we’re seeing research stations and ships that will carry tourists.”

But Chown also highlights how the world’s increasing interest has already brought invasive species to the continent, including a bluegrass called poa annua and a couple of midge species. His past research indicates an Antarctica visitor will typically carry at least two seeds; around 40,000 scientists and tourists visit the region every year, and he expects the risk of non-indigenous species is only going to rise.

“We have these great conservation challenges and we have interests from nations with different perspectives,” he concludes. “We need to decide as a global community what it is that we want to do with Antarctica.” 

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