Tuesday, December 1, 2009

50 Years Ago Today

On Dec. 1, 1959, representatives of 12 countries, including the United States, signed a treaty in Washington setting aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, free from military activity.
(NYT; full article here.) I suppose, at the time, this was a no brainer. The idea of limited geological resources was understood in the abstract, but not really in a gut sense. Make no mistake: there are vast resources in Antarctica, a few known, most unknown and buried under ice. For one example,
"The South Pole, a world of ice and snow, has become a hot spot in recent years. The Argentinean Foreign Ministry stated that vice-Foreign Ministers from Argentina and Chile would be meeting in early December to discuss the South Pole issue, and work out a joint strategy to boycott British sovereign demands on the South Pole's continental shelf."

The same source provided this background information:

"The vastness of seemingly barren, ice-covered land is uncovered and exposed to the outside world, revealing a 'treasure basin' with incredibly abundant mineral deposits and energy reserves....A layer of Permian Period coal exists on the mainland, and holds 500 billion tons in known reserves.

"The thick ice dome over the land is home to the world's largest reservoir for fresh water; holds approximately 29.3 million cubic kilometers of ice;
and makes up 75% of earth's fresh water supply.

"It is possible to say that the South Pole could feed the entire world
with its abundant supplies of food [fish] and fresh water."

And warned that the "the value of the South Pole is not confined to the economic sphere; it also lies in its strategic position.

"The US Coast Guard has long had garrisons in the region, and the US Air Force [is] the number one air power in the region.

"[T]he South Pole [Antarctic] Treaty points out that the South Pole can only be exploited and developed for the sake of peace; and can not be a battle ground. Otherwise, the ice-cold South Pole could prove a fiercely hot battlefield."
And the go-to Wikipedia, which I've said before I don't entirely trust, but is nevertheless not a horrible place to start, says:
The main mineral resource known on the continent is coal. It was first recorded near the Beardmore Glacier by Frank Wild on the Nimrod Expedition, and now low-grade coal is known across many parts of the Transantarctic Mountains. The Prince Charles Mountains contain significant deposits of iron ore. The most valuable resources of Antarctica lie offshore, namely the oil and natural gas fields found in the Ross Sea in 1973. Exploitation of all mineral resources by signatory states is banned until 2048 by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.
So from the perspective of 50 years later, with shortages and unequal distributions of resources, particularly energy resources, the idea of locking commercial and military interests out of this vast, rich and delicate continent would be, in my view, quite contentious. I would go so far as to say it probably wouldn't and couldn't happen.

During the Christmas season of 1995, I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the Antarctic peninsula. While (no surprise) I was captivated by the geology in this land of ice and stone, I think the thing that struck me hardest was the density of life- particularly penguins. It is confusing, at an emotional level I can't really describe, to look out across landscapes with literally not a single plant, yet seeing millions of birds in their nests, spaced out at two or three feet apart, and covering square miles of ground.

Intellectually of course, I understand that the vast bulk of the food chain is invisible to the tourist, hidden under water. But I'll reiterate that at an instinctive level, there is serious cognitive dissonance in seeing millions of animals going about their business, naturally, in the ecological equivalent of an icy parking lot.

I hope and pray that mankind sees fit to maintain a hands-off policy to this incredible land, despite the temptation presented by the riches therein.

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