Cold hard facts about Antarctica

Cold hard facts about Antarctica

Julie Bishop

One of the consequences of the globe's growing population and correspondingly increased demand for resources is the competition for minerals and resources exploration in regions previously considered unviable due to high costs, remote locations or extreme environments.

In some instances this competition has led to territorial disputes including in the South China Sea, East China Sea, the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic as well as other locations around the world.

While many of these territorial disputes have existed for decades, the potential for undersea exploration of energy resources has brought a renewed edge to many of the existing tensions.

This global search for resources has also meant that places such as Antarctica are now facing greatly increased interest in terms of exploration potential.

It becomes rather complicated in the case of the Antarctic continent for it has no sovereign nation or government that can claim historical ownership.

This has led to a range of international treaties and agreements regarding access to the mineral and energy resources of Antarctica, and to the fisheries of what would normally be regarded as territorial waters.

There are at least 7 existing land and maritime territorial claims, including by Australia, which are not recognised by most other states, and the USA and Russia reserve the right to make a claim.

Until relatively recently the harsh climate precluded most types of activity.

Antarctica is a massive continent with a land area and ice shelfs almost double that of Australia's land mass.

The landscape is covered in sheets of ice of up to 4 kilometres thick.

It is by far the coldest place on earth.

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) reports that the coldest temperature ever recorded at the earth's surface was minus 89.2°C in 1983 in Antarctica.

One of the lesser known facts about Antarctica is that it is also the highest continent with its land mass averaging 2500 metres above sea level, making it subject to some of the fiercest winds across the globe.

Add the remoteness of its locality- with the closest city being Argentina more than 1200 kilometres away and with Hobart more than 3400 kilometres from Antarctica's shores - these factors create enormous challenges for anyone undertaking any operation there.

It is quite literally the coldest, driest, highest, windiest and emptiest place on the planet.

Notwithstanding the hurdles, there is fast-growing interest in Antarctica from many nations.

There are however, growing concerns about the fish stocks in the region and the lack of a legal framework to guard against unsustainable exploitation.

A recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) held in Tasmania considered the creation of expanded reserves.

The meeting resolved to undertake further scientific research and deferred any decision for at least six months.

It has been interpreted as a stalling tactic with some groups laying the blame for the delay on delegates from Russia, China and Ukraine.

This exemplifies the complex political and legal hurdles that are preventing the establishment of a framework within which all parties would operate.

The lack of a sovereign government on Antarctica means protection measures and codes of conduct require agreement and consensus.

Exploration and mining is currently banned under the Madrid Protocol, signed in 1991 and which entered into force in 1998.

This treaty can only be reviewed if all parties agree on such a step.

The AAD has identified significant deposits of iron ore and coal, although it is sceptical about the amount of likely onshore oil and gas reserves.

It does report much greater potential for offshore oil and gas due to the formation of sedimentary basins formed in the distant past when Antarctica was known to be covered in lush vegetation.

There is little knowledge of the geological formations due to the limited exploration that has taken place, with deep sea drilling in the Ross Sea abandoned in the late 1970s.

AAD has estimated that world oil prices would need to increase to more than $200 per barrel before such exploration became economically viable.

Interest in the resources of the Antarctic was growing steadily several years ago but has waned in more recent times, due to the shale revolution pioneered in the United States.

The expected increase in gas and oil production from the huge shale reserves in the USA has the potential to reshape global energy markets.

However, these reserves will inevitably deplete in coming decades, particularly if demand from China, India, Africa and the Middle East continues to grow.

That will make it vital for binding and robust legal frameworks to be established to ensure any future development in Antarctica, including increased fishing, is sustainable and balanced.

By Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop


Copyright 2007