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Antarctica

The only continent with no sovereign nation in residence. A model for the moon?

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Climate

Oceania

Resources

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Problem

Problem

Geologically Antarctica was once joined, as part of Gondwanaland, to Africa, Australia, India and South America, which are already known to be rich in minerals. It is believed that similar minerals might exist in Antarctica. These include coal, oil and gold. At present, extraction of any of these could not compete with other sources but everyone knows that existing sources are being used up. As technology progresses costs might become less than prices. Most scientists and ecologists view these possible developments with regret and would like to prevent them. However, in recent years many countries have been sending scientific teams to do research in Antarctica. It seems a reasonable inference that in many cases their aim is to establish a presence there if ever mining becomes possible. Some of the "research" is suspected of being of little scientific value.

The amount of pollution of the Antarctic environment is growing rapidly. Non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace wish to retain Antarctica as a World Wilderness Park on the model of National Parks.

The intense cold and huge ice sheets of the continent are believed to exert a controlling influence on much of the world's weather system. Any change there could be disastrous. It is unknown whether Global Warming might cause some or all of the ice sheet to melt. If it were to melt, the level of the oceans could rise by an unknown amount but calculable to as much as 25 metres (82 feet) from the West Antarctic Ice sheet alone.

A possible way of dealing with rising sea level would be to pump huge quantities of water on to the East Antarctica ice sheet to keep it frozen (see Kim Stanley Robinson - Sixty Degrees and Counting). However, this may be a fantasy. Quite likely the West Antarctic Ice sheet is going to melt, raising the sea level by many metres. How quickly will it do so? There is no settled estimate, but Greenland is melting much faster than was previously expected.

Summary

Problem

Possible Solutions

The Antarctic Treaty (1959) provides for the political neutrality of Antarctica. It also prohibits its use for production of minerals. The only permissible activity is scientific research. The treaty expired in June 1991. The Madrid Conference on Antarctica devised a new treaty. The industrial powers appeared to be trying to allow future mining but eventually agreed.

As world resources become scarcer it would take unusual self-restraint not to try to use those in Antarctica. At present the treaty forbids mining there. There is also a treaty preventing the development of nuclear weapons (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) which is broken by several signatories. Would a permanent Antarctic treaty be observed?

There are several national claims to the land which are supposed to be suspended. Should Antarctica become a property of the United Nations? Some suggested (at the Law of the Sea conferences) that the deep oceans should be UN property but national interests, especially the United States and Britain, prevented this.

If minerals are ever discovered on the moon, it will be in the same legal position as Antarctica is now. It would be useful to provide a regime there which can prevent war. A treaty forbidding mining for 50 years was signed in September 1992.

Moon
However, the 1979 UN treaty declaring the Moon to be the common property of mankind was not signed by the US, Russia, Japan and China, the only states likely to finance visits to the moon.

China is believed to have plans to build a permanent outpost on the Moon.

Last revised 26/12/09


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