In the first significant arms control treaty of the Cold War, 12 nations signed up to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System, agreeing to ban all military activity on the continent and allow for the freedom of scientific endeavours. Any country can now set up a research facility anywhere on the island, while mining activity is banned and strict environmental protocols have to be adhered to. Despite the potential for conflict, the 60-year-old treaty has resulted in an atmosphere focused on learning and cooperation.
The rules that have governed the region and fostered science for decades could now be threatened by competing interests for the resources both under the Antarctic ice and in the South Atlantic itself. There may be trouble on the horizon for Antarctica as a hub for science and as a model for international relations. Antarctica is understood to have significant reserves of oil and gas as well as deposits of coal, chromium and iron ore. According to the US Geological Survey, there could be as many as 36 billion barrels of oil and gas buried under the ice and rock, almost impossible to reach now but potentially accessible as technology continues to improve.
According to Simon Romero of the New York Times, “an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now”.
According to Anne-Marie Brady, executive editor of The Polar Journal and professor in political science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, “The Antarctic Treaty has never resolved the issue of either sovereignty or access to mineral resources. There is a lack of political trust among many Antarctic states, as well as a deep conflict of values and interests. Now that the technological barriers to Antarctic exploration have eased, more and more states are seeking access to Antarctica, putting pressure on the governance structures.”
Some of Antarctica’s longstanding observers are worried that the spirit in which the Antarctic Treaty System was enacted in 1959 may not be adhered to when the treaties governing the protection of Antarctica’s natural resources come up for review in 2048.
“I don’t think we should assume that every country will agree to further prohibition of mining in the Antarctic,” says Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an expert in the politics of the polar regions. “It would be naive to think that the current no-mining consensus might not change during this century.”
It wouldn’t be the first time resource-rich Antarctica has seen countries contesting for the rights to exploit the continent. In 1923, Britain’s under-secretary of state for the colonies, Leo Amery had entertained the idea of incorporating the entire continent into the British Empire, before competing interests by Chile and Norway put a stop to British expansionism.
“The Antarctic Treaty was a Cold War instrument designed to preserve control of the Antarctic continent and oceans by the US and its allies,” says Anne-Marie Brady. “It was thought that it would be easier to control the Russians if they were in an international regime than if they were out of one. The Treaty kept the peace in the Cold War years, but it is proving inadequate to respond to the challenges of the current era: resource scarcity, climate change, and the changing global order.”
Dodds sees the prevailing “Anglosphere” powers increasingly at odds with developing nations with stated interests in space, scientific and resource interests. “What you have in Antarctica is an old order consisting of Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand increasingly having to share the region with a different group of countries. It’s a group of countries that are increasingly making their presence felt in the region and may take a different attitude towards its use in the future.”