Antarctica On the Brink

Antarctica On the Brink

New Zealand has never enjoyed a prime position in the international arena, and most of us are rather content with this. Our antipodean status has let us foster interest in unattended corners of the globe, and place great stress upon the importance of conservation. We have shot to the forefront of international discussion on a couple of occasions, including the nuclear-free issue in the 1980s. Those were all fleeting periods of relevance, but the country may be in for an unprecedented heyday, along with only a few other select nations.

Historically, the only landmass more damned to oblivion than New Zealand is Antarctica. It is the most sparsely populated, undernourished, and ignored continent on Earth. A lack of indigenous populace and inescapable isolation has pushed it to the boundaries of popular perception and made its mere mention in many political contexts odd at best and irrelevant at worst.

A great deal of interest in Antarctica focuses on its geology and zoology, and for good reason - there isn’t much else going on there. The geopolitics of Antarctica are still a niche field and don’t extend farther than international law. Despite this, a handful of futurists have persistently envisioned a more human future for the Antarctic continent, and every year there are more and more factors that suggest these predictions may eventuate after all.

No one nation holds claim to Antarctica. This unique situation has led to a web of treaties that have continuously developed over the last 60 years. The Antarctic Treaty System has brought a degree of order to the seventh continent, and helped protect Antarctica from fates that have befallen virtually every inhabited landmass on earth. Of all the treaties that concern Antarctica’s future, 1998’s Antarctic Environmental Protocol holds the most at stake, buffered by Article 1 of 1961’s Antarctic Treaty, which forbids military activity in Antarctica. The latter has only been violated at one point – a one-off Argentine Army expedition in 1965.

The Antarctic Environmental Protocol explicitly forbids investigations into mineral reserves, a rule that its signatories appear to have followed thus far. However, scientific research is tolerated, and the scant knowledge of Antarctic oil reserves has been discovered through such investigations so far. Scientific research can easily be bastardised to accommodate hidden agendas, demonstrated most prominently by Japanese whalers. Further deliberate investigations into mineral reserves in Antarctica could happen in the near future, and there would be little infrastructure to stop it from happening.

Before the Antarctic Treaty System was signed, a number of nations made claims to particular stretches of the continent. Those claims were legally invalidated under the conditions of the initial treaties, but still hold a loose de facto status in Antarctica’s geopolitical arena. Otago University Geography Professor, Sean Fitzsimons, does not believe such claims hold much credence. “They are there, but they’re largely irrelevant. They aren’t pushed by any country.”

The Ross Dependency – New Zealand’s claim – is heavily populated by Antarctic standards. The stretch of coast is home to the United State’s McMurdo base, the largest single settlement on the continent. With a summer population of around 1000, the town hosts a non-denominational church, an ATM, and its own sewerage system. Such towns have only existed in any real capacity for a few decades, and give little indication of Antarctica’s long period of alienation.

Many early explorers were not enamoured with Antarctica, and understandably so. Intimidated by its icy tundra and comparative lack of seals, Captain James Cook steered well clear and declared “that the world will derive no benefit from it” in a 1777 expedition. More recent reception has been equally harsh. When the first Antarctic treaties were being drafted in the late 1950s, an American geologist famously declared that he “would not give a nickel for all the resources of Antarctica.”

These attitudes have given way to ever-intensifying speculation concerning the viability of Antarctica as an exploitable commodity. The scope of the speculation is international, and fast developing; fossil-fuel dependent economies are showing great interest.

Antarctica is home to many valuable resources. Crude oil, coal – and possibly even diamonds – are believed to rest beneath its icy planes. This mineral-rich environment may seem enticing to miners at first, but the nature of the continent has prevented exploitation thus far. Most of these minerals lie under kilometres of ice, making their current extraction absurd on economic considerations. The commodity thought to be most prevalent is coal, which is strewn throughout the Transantarctic Mountains – in locations desolate even for Antarctic standards.

Such hindrances might make immediate land-based mining unattractive, but some of Antarctica’s oil is suspected to lie in the seabeds of the Ross Sea – a maritime dependency of New Zealand. As many as 50 million barrels are suspected to lie below its fathoms. Of course, the very real threat of oil spills comes into play when ocean is involved, and no seas are more pristine than those in the Antarctic.

When the Antarctic Environmental Protocol opens for review in 2048, the world is likely to be a very different place. According to 2012 estimates published in Nature, global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.4 - 3 degrees Celsius on average by 2050 if current rates of consumption are maintained. According to most estimates, peak oil will be a historical event by then and, pessimistically, some form of dependence on fossil fuels will still burden humanity. Antarctica is estimated to harbour as many as 203 billion barrels of oil in total – a truly mind-boggling quantity.

Perhaps most alarmingly, overpopulation and mismanagement of the world’s fresh water supply might make water trapped in Antarctic ice (90 per cent of the world’s total) an attractive commodity, especially considering the fact its extraction could be eased by the looming spectre of global warming.

Even krill fishing is likely to become a booming industry. The tiny crustaceans actually outweigh the entire human population, with a total weight of 379 million tonnes to humanity’s 350 million. Their swarms in the Southern Ocean can reach hundreds of kilometres in diameter. Unable to ignore this staggering commodity, fishery companies are extracting increasingly larger hauls of the microscopic creatures every year, then turning them into fishmeal. But humans can consume krill, too – they have been eaten in Japan for hundreds of years.

It is foreseeable that krill, inaccessible and unappetising, may stay as fishmeal for some time to come. But upon the event that fisheries exhaust populations of more conventional food sources, humanity might be able to modify its palate.

Much of the southern continent’s cargo is shifted by planes, defying the popular image of Antarctic icebreakers smashing through icebergs to bring equipment to research scientists. Even significant quantities of oil are shifted by air, a phenomenon that is comically unsustainable.

New Zealand scientists are making headways to resolve these issues, building three wind turbines in an effort to curb fossil fuel consumption at McMurdo and Scott bases. According to Professor Fitzsimons, the turbines save as many as nine million litres of oil a year. Furthermore, an American trans-Antarctic highway of compacted snow has been built between the coast of McMurdo Station and the heart of Antarctica, the South Pole. This makes long-haul terrestrial cargo a feasible option, and may reduce Antarctica’s carbon footprint in due time.

New Zealand’s disproportionate influence in Antarctica is due to one obvious factor – proximity. It was discovered by the same man, James Cook, and is only beaten by the southernmost fringes of South America in its Antarctic vicinity. Of course, this brings New Zealand’s direct Antarctic relevance to Southland and Otago.

Dunedin has shared a close connection with Antarctica since earnest exploration began at the turn of the 20th Century. The city served as a decisive staging post for both Ernest Shackleton in 1916 and Richard Byrd in 1928, and was the last city that Robert Falcon Scott saw before his ill-fated Antarctic Expedition in 1910.

However, modern developments have shunted Dunedin to the back of Antarctic priorities and the city only enjoys status as a back-up airfield upon Christchurch’s inoperability. Professor Fitzsimons believes that a “major infrastructural change” would be required to advance Dunedin in the current Antarctic sphere of influence. “Christchurch is logistically more feasible, and Bluff is the obvious choice geographically. I honestly can’t see Dunedin playing a significant role in the future of Antarctica; it just wouldn’t operate.”

New Zealand has fostered ties with China since the Southern gold rush of the 1860s, though Otago’s Chinese population has declined substantially since that colonial period. This was largely down to a shamelessly xenophobic poll tax imposed on Chinese immigrants and an economic depression that ensued after the gold rush, forcing many young Chinese men to return back to their homeland.

New Zealand’s Chinese heyday may be long past, but it could mirror a future where the South Island becomes one of the major staging posts to a booming Antarctic region, and the southern extremities of the Americas are dominated by the interests of Chile, Argentina and, perhaps, the United States.

Chinese expansionism in Antarctica is undoubtedly on the rise. Annual Antarctic expenditure has almost trebled in the last decade, from $20 million in 2003 to $55 million last year. This far outpaces the equivalent Sino-Arctic expenditure, which has remained stagnant. China is well and truly engaged with Antarctica, and strives to upset a pro-western status quo that has been in place since the continent was permanently settled for the first time in 1945.

This February, a 1000m² Chinese base finished construction on the East-Antarctic Ice Sheet. Taishan, or “Lantern,” is the fourth Chinese base to be built in Antarctica and will probably be the last to not have an all year crew. General Secretary Xi Jinping personally congratulated the crew in a recent letter, and stressed the importance of scientific research on the continent as fundamental for the “exploration of nature” and the “development of mankind.”

When the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo convened in July 2013, Xi was more explicit about his country’s intentions in Antarctica, decreeing that China should “take advantage of ocean and polar resources.” This is clearly an attitude that does not fall in line with the Antarctic Environmental Protocol. The press may have largely overlooked the comment, as overwhelming focus was placed upon the on-going dialogue regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue in the East China Sea.

Regardless, China’s current efforts in Antarctica are still far outpaced by those of the United States. Qu Tanzhou, the Director of China’s polar programmes, was quick to point out that “the number of American people undertaking polar research in one year outstripped China’s total number that have been conducting such research over the past 30 years.” However, the near-exponential rate of Chinese investment in Antarctica may soon close the gap.

China isn’t the only Asian power to express late interest in Antarctica. South Korea has recently invested in a $90 million collaborative effort with New Zealand, building a base in Terra Nova Bay. Jang Bogo is due to finish construction this month, located only 300km away from New Zealand’s Scott Base – a stone’s throw in Antarctic terms. Korea’s intentions in Antarctica appear to remain benevolent, with Antarctic Director Dr Yeadong Kim telling TV3 that Korean interests in the continent are completely scientific. “My personal view is that we are better to keep it as it is now, there’s only one place in the world that remains so natural.”

Three principal cities service the Antarctic: Argentina’s Ushuaia; Australia’s Hobart; and New Zealand’s Christchurch. Most operations that run out of Ushuaia are South American, just as Hobart’s are largely Australian. In contrast, Christchurch has fostered a close relationship with the United States Antarctic Programme, and New Zealand scientists’ primary form of travel to the south is on American planes. Whether this relationship could give a clue as to how future Sino-New Zealand expeditions would operate is up for debate, with Oxford University Professor Rosemary Foot outlining China’s unique relationship with New Zealand at a 4 March lecture at the University of Otago. She believes New Zealand to have closer relations to China than most of its western counterparts, as China views New Zealand as an “independent player.” This is exemplified by New Zealand’s ground breaking Free Trade Agreement with China in 2008.

China’s investments in New Zealand have dominated Sino-New Zealand relations for a few years now, and may hint at China’s interest in expanding its maritime presence in the South Pacific. A 27-storey, $100 million hotel driven by Chinese investors was proposed for Dunedin’s waterfront, but failed to gain resource consent from Dunedin City Council. A more recent and successful engagement with Chinese investors was the $200 million acquisition of Crafar Farms by Chinese firm Shanghai Pengxin in 2012. Widespread domestic anguish at the monumental purchase indicates that Chinese investments are unwelcome to many New Zealanders, echoing the fears of “yellow peril” during the Otago gold rush.

More recently, Shanghai Pengxin have purchased majority shares in Canterbury’s Synliat Farms. Such land acquisitions hold little direct relevance to China’s Antarctic programme, but serve as excellent examples of the future role that New Zealand might possess for bigger players – a nation-sized paddock, as well as a staging post for Antarctica’s splendours.

Though the hypotheses I’ve raised are less than certain, it is worth considering the impact that Antarctica’s exploitation would have on New Zealand’s future economy, culture, and sovereignty. Squabbles over minerals, water, and sustenance are the main drivers of war and annexation, and New Zealand’s glacial back yard is abundant with all of the above.
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2014.
Posted 5:30pm Sunday 23rd March 2014 by Thomas Raethel.