How often do you think of Antarctica? My guess is, probably not very often. If you think of it at all, I would bet you conjure up romantic and cruel visions of the exploits of Mawson, Shackleton and Scott or vast, icy landscapes. I would be very surprised if you thought about our national and international responsibilities as claimant to almost one fifth of that frozen continent. But perhaps now it’s time to do that.
Antarctica is divided up and managed under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty which sets aside the continent as a scientific reserve. The Treaty bans military and mining activity. Call me cynical but it’s not a very effective system of management. The treaty is up for renewal in 2050 and every nation with an interest is jockeying for a position to claim what they can when the treaty ends. This is most obvious on the Antarctic Peninsula, a long, curved promontory below South America. There are ‘research stations’ everywhere representing more than a dozen nations. Many are abandoned and consist of a shipping container daubed with a nation’s flag or a broken-down dwelling battered by the elements. The point of these ‘research stations’ is to demonstrate a long-term interest in the area and thus bolster any future territorial claim. The Peninsula has three competing claims from Britain, Chile and Argentina. The Argentine claim often appears on their national maps along with the Malvinas (The Falkland Islands). To further their claim Argentina built a maternity ward at Hope Bay where any expecting Argentine mother-to-be could go and deliver their child on Antarctic (destined to be Argentine) soil. I’m told the Chileans have built a hotel that has never been used to further their claims of sovereignty, while British sovereign activity consists of selling stamps. Why is there such interest in owning bits of this frozen wasteland? I’ve seen copper leeching from the rocks in several places. There are unknown but probably very large reserves of oil, mostly off the coast. Coal deposits have been found as well as potentially economic deposits of several other minerals. The rock unit that contains the Olympic Dam ore body and numerous other copper, gold and uranium deposits across our state continues on the other side of the Southern Ocean, deep into the Antarctic continent – almost certainly carrying yet more mineral riches. One-hundred-and-one years ago this month Douglas Mawson set off to Antarctica with the principle objective of economic exploration. There’s a fortune down there and much of the riches are in currencies that are dwindling in the rest of the world. A recent report in Nature claims that visiting scientists has trashed part of Antarctica. I’ve been to King George Island and it is a spectacular place: its grandeur is imposed by its remoteness and rugged beauty. The Fildes Peninsula is perhaps the most heavily populated part of the whole of Antarctica with six research bases operated by four nations. It’s also home to some of the highest diversity of wildlife on the whole continent. The report by Germany’s Federal Environment Agency chronicles waste dumps and other abuses of the environment. The report identified numerous and systematic violations of the Antarctic environmental protocol, which sets out basic principles for human activities. This news saddened me but I’m not surprised. While all the bases I’ve visited spanning several nations are well-run and organised, much of their impact on the environment is managed only on the whim of the base personnel. The military presence on some bases adds a menacing air and if a base did decide to ignore the guidelines set out in the Antarctic Treaty, there’s really not much that can be done about it. Some years back the French built a runway through the centre of a penguin colony with complete impunity. The global public outcry was ignored. In an act of delicious irony, the runway was washed away soon after completion when a nearby glacier calved sending out a mini tsunami. The management of human activity in Antarctica is governed by little more than a gentleman’s agreement, and some players are definitely not gentlemen. So spare a thought for our ambitious Antarctic claim. It’s an area two thirds the size of Australia and, while we have three active bases there, the Russians, Chinese and Romanians also have another 12 bases on our patch as well as another jointly run by the French and Italians. What does this territorial claim mean to us and what are the costs of defending and maintaining it? What is the point of our claim if it is not recognised by other nations? Would we really do anything to enforce good, ethical behaviour in our Sector or will we just turn a blind eye to any transgressions, impotent to do anything other than complain? If we have the right to claim territory, we have a responsibility to protect it. But I wonder if we are seriously up to meeting that obligation? Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus