Few places have captured the human imagination like Antarctica. It is colder than anywhere on Earth, bounded by rough seas, buffeted by intense winds, home to fauna that are found nowhere else and, as far as we can tell, is a land where no human settlement has ever endured.
A frozen landmass of 14 million square km (almost twice the size of Australia), where only about 4,000 people inhabit scientific bases in the short summer, and a paltry 1,000 in the winter.
It is protected by a historic treaty that safeguards it from mining and development. But as countries, particularly China, expand their presence in Antarctica, this half-century-old agreement is coming under increasing pressure.
Heroic age of exploration
James Cook somewhat egotistically remarked in 1773 that “no man will venture farther than I have done, and … the lands which may lie to the south will never be explored”. He was, of course, wrong.
Less than 50 years later, in 1821, the first recorded landing took place and the exploration of the southern continent began. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration gave us stories of men (for they were all men) pushing themselves to the very limits of human endurance. Scott and Amundsen’s famous race to the South Pole and the subsequent perishing of Scott and his party is but one example of the publicly and privately sponsored efforts to research and lay claim to the continent.
More than 100 years later, the southern land still remains a hidden and distant frontier. Its remote mystique is the attraction for the more than 25,000 tourists who sailed, flew, or set foot on the continent in the 2012-13 season. Although that is significantly more than the numbers living on scientific bases, it is still only half the number of people who visit Disneyland on a typical day.
And at a time when powerful new technologies are giving us a knowledge and understanding of remote places there is comparatively little interest in the Antarctic. Why be concerned with a place once described by Australian historian and novelist Thomas Kenneally as “the pure and dreadful continent”? After all, it is vast, intensely inclement and not a particularly enticing place for even the most warmly dressed human.
Antarctica on the brink
Yet we should be wary of this complacent, detached mindset. Antarctica may be on the limits of habitability, yet the interest in mining and exploitation is growing.
The Antarctic Treaty itself is an unprecedented agreement to manage human activity and influence over the commons through the principles of peace, cooperation and science. It has proved remarkably robust. In 1991 the treaty’s Madrid Protocol banned all commercial mining with provisions for review in 50 years.
Over recent months and years there has been a steady and growing trickle of news revealing intensifying interest in the place. Discovering diamonds, for instance, is the kind of development that tends to get people excited.
Since the early expeditions, Antarctic research has had the dual purpose of advancing understanding while also signifying national claims on the continent. Now, 50 years after the Antarctic Treaty came into force, under the cloak of scientific research, countries are exploring the potential of the world’s last unexploited continent. It has been estimated that under its current polar five-year plan, China is spending around 350m yuan (US$55m) per year on Antarctica.
This funding is going towards significant new infrastructure: a second icebreaking vessel, an ice-capable aircraft, helicopters and a new polar campus in Shanghai. When those trapped aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy earlier this year were finally rescued, it was notably a Chinese helicopter that transported people to safety.
China in pole position
There is nothing secret about the purpose of this investment. China’s leadership is unambiguous about its polar aims. At a Politburo committee conference in July last year, President Xi Jinping emphasized the necessity of polar exploration to “take advantage of ocean and polar resources”.
Last month, China opened its fourth research base, a development heralded by President Xi as a further step in scientific understanding and “human development”.
Despite the Antarctic Treaty supposedly having put the issue of territorial claims to bed, sovereignty in Antarctica can be seen as somewhat amorphous. States now tend to assert themselves by building research bases, although the Colonial-age practice of flag-planting continues.
In 2012, the British Government, without reference to any other party to the Antarctic Treaty, named 437,708 square km of British territory (twice the size of the United Kingdom) as “Queen Elizabeth Land” to mark the monarch’s diamond jubilee, despite it overlapping with previous claims by Chile and Argentina. Pull a trick like that anywhere else in the world and it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. But the move received little more than diplomatic rebuke.
Growing political pressure
As the rules of the Antarctic Treaty gradually become less relevant and fit for purpose, established and emerging economies are quietly yet consistently jockeying for position. If China builds its planned fifth research station it will have more than either Britain or Australia, and only one fewer than the United States.
Next month’s Antarctic Treaty meeting will go through the standard deliberations conforming to the established diplomatic protocols. Yet the decisions that really matter are increasingly being taken not by delegates to treaty talks, but by the central government agencies of the richest and most powerful countries.
As a country key to the development and strengthening of the Antarctic Treaty, with the largest territory on the continent and a proud history of scientific involvement and exploration, these are matters of huge importance to Australia.
So watch this space. My colleagues and I at the University of Sydney are working to understand and communicate these dynamics, and to address how the intensifying geo-political, economic and environmental pressures will be managed: perhaps through a radical re-casting of the Antarctic Treaty, or - more alarmingly - by seeing the treaty replaced with an unseemly dash for resources.