Close

No icy El Dorado yet

No icy El Dorado yet
Some countries are aggressive in their bid for a slice of Antarctica, but it appears to be a race to the moon – useful for bragging rights and research, but of no direct commercial benefit.

Some countries are aggressive in their bid for a slice of Antarctica, but it appears to be a race to the moon – useful for bragging rights and research, but of no direct commercial benefit.

Despite some calls for an icy El Dorado, the winner for now is Antarctica's harsh climate, supported by a global support for the pristine continent and an inclusive treaty system driven by and encouraging scientific collaboration over exploitation. 

There are indeed minerals, and even hydrocarbons, in the Antarctic region, but the known ore and oil deposits are relatively low-grade and unexciting to professionals. We know relatively little about most of the rest of the continent as it's covered by an ice sheet, sometimes kilometres thick. That ice, despite the best efforts of global warming, is going to stick around for a while, making any mining or oil drilling prohibitively difficult. 

But given inexorable demand and enough time, some of Antarctica's mineral and oil resources will become economic to extract safely. We're seeing this effect elsewhere, with Russian and Chinese interests seeing that mining the seabed in the deep ocean could be viable. They have permission from the International Seabed Authority to explore and potentially mine areas of the international seabed outside the Antarctic region.

It's going to be a genuine engineering, logistical and political challenge. Exploration rigs in the Ross Sea, where there is allegedly oil, would need to cope with the Antarctic current, weather systems and drifting icebergs that dwarf the rigs. That's in summer. In winter the Antarctic ice shelf extends beyond the entire continent, and it's inaccessible to ships. 

The New Zealand-led ANDRILL project, which periodically drills through ice and rock to uncover core samples that inform us of past climate change, hints at the difficulty. Each drilling operation takes years to plan and organise, while weather conditions limit the drilling window to a matter of weeks each year. The ice itself moves around, the cold is well beyond human norms, and the conditions are almost impossible to imagine for mining engineers. But nothing is totally impossible, and continuing technical improvements and enough money will eventually allow environmentally safe extraction of the ore and oil.

Antarctica is managed under the collaborative umbrella of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). This is proving to be successful not just at promoting scientific collaboration, but also at managing resources such as toothfish in the oceans around the Antarctic. (Antarctic toothfish is arguably managed better than our own fisheries.) It operates by consensus, so every country in the treaty needs to agree to any changes. We're a founding member, original territory claimant and we provide access to the region through Christchurch. 

Any country can join the ATS simply by establishing a scientific presence in the continent, either by building bases or even by seconding scientists to other programs. Some countries are aggressive in their base-building and scientific research, but for now it appears to be a scaled-down version of the race to the moon ñ useful for bragging rights and research, but of no direct commercial benefit. 

While sustainable fishing is working well, mining is banned outright and a definite shift in ATS policy will be required for mining to be allowed. Treaty partners will almost certainly insist that any mining if done would be under the strictest environmentally sound conditions. 

Lance Wiggs visited Antarctica as part of Gareth Morgan’s Our Far South project.