Why the Antarctic gets less news than the Arctic

The thaw has caused the release of icebergs that may be a risk to navigation, but in Antarctica the geopolitics is partially frozen

The increase of the temperatures is opening the Arctic to the commercial routes and to the dispute between countries for the future control of the riches of its subsoil. In Antarctica, with lower temperatures and a slower thaw, what is under the white mantle is not an ocean, but a continent away from the navigation lines and the direct interests of the great powers. There are reasons for the main international actors to prefer to continue leaving in the fridge all claims about the South Pole.

ARTICLE / Alona Sainetska [Spanish version]

Antarctica is a continent with mountain ranges and lakes, surrounded by an ocean and with a total area of 14 million square kilometers. It is often compared to the Arctic which is, instead, an icy sea surrounded by land. In the north of the Arctic Circle live about 4 million people. In contrast, the Antarctica, with its average of -49° C of temperature, is absolutely uninhabitable and is considered today as a natural sanctuary that attracts the attention of numerous countries from all over the world.

Even though the South Pole does not present, at a first glimpse, any important elements for a conflict in the global, international system, the sovereignty of its territory has never been exempt from disputes and territorial claims by countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France, Argentina and Chile. Although lately they were left in abeyance, the claims of those countries do not interfere with others, except in the case of Argentina and Chile, whose claims were made on the parts of the land that have already been requested totally or partially by England.

In this context there has occurred a transcendental coincidence of interests among the aforementioned countries which also spread to the non-claiming superpowers, as was the case of the United States and the USSR. Both showed little desire to convert the continent and the maritime space into an object of political-military clashes. This fact facilitated a lot the negotiations about the future legal status that would have "the frozen continent".

The first attempt to establish a special legal regime for Antarctica was the initiative of the United States, in 1948. However, this idea failed while clashing with the opposition of countries that wished to expand their sovereignty to the territories of Antarctica. Only two years later, when the USSR announced that it would not accept any agreement on Antarctica in which it was not represented, could the continent arouse interest of the great powers once again.

Facing the need of reaching a consensus and as a result of the enormous efforts of the world scientific community, a climate of cooperation and international dialogue on Antarctica was born.  This allowed free access of scientists of any nationality to the continent, as well as the exchange of the results of their investigations.

This new context led to the signature of the Treaty on Antarctica (ATS), on December 1, 1959 , which entered into force on June 23, 1961. Any possible modification, by majority, was postponed until a conference scheduled for 30 years after its enforcement. However, when 1991 arrived, there were no changes applied and, what is even more, the safeguards were added.

In the AT, the member-countries committed themselves to recognize a special legal regime of Antarctica, giving it a status of "terra nullius". In addition, there was established a demilitarization of the Antarctic continent, which reserved the frozen space exclusively for peaceful purposes and prohibited the foundation of military bases.

On the other hand, it proclaimed the freezing of all claims of territorial sovereignty over Antarctica, not allowing either making new claims or expanding those previously made during the period of validity of the treaty.

 In the same way, there was originated a right to appoint observers in order to ensure fulfillment of the objectives of the treaty and, additionally, there were organized some periodic meetings for both the original signatory states and those being assigned a consultative function for carrying out important scientific missions in Antarctica.

Scientific and economic potential         

In 1991, there were some additional efforts made in the conservation of the frozen giant. In order to respond to issues such as climate change and the need to protect the special ecosystem that the continent represented, the so-called "complementary" protocol to the AT on environmental protection was signed in Madrid. The requisite for its entry into force was the obligation to be ratified by all the Antarctic Treaty consultative members.

It put under prohibition any exploitation of mineral resources, except those carried for scientific purposes. This restriction could only be lifted by unanimous agreement and kept the continent away from possible plunder of its great natural resources. Antarctica thus became a unique place in the world where the coexistence between man and nature could be possible and long-lasting.

 However, the last decades supposed many strategic changes that have caused serious doubts and concerns regarding the effectiveness of the AT. Antarctica’s scientific and economic potential, together with its enormous biodiversity and richness in natural resources, have greatly increased its importance. The greater interaction and interdependence of the numerous national, international and transnational actors that form the world community has also multiplied the desire to influence and participate, in different ways, in the pursuit of particular interests in this area of the world.

Thus, not only there are projects aimed to guarantee environmental conditions, such as discussion on the creation of a large area of natural preservation in the Ross Sea, but also some controversial initiatives in order to take advantage of Antarctic resources. One example could be a recent suggestion of the Arab Emirates to tow icebergs from the masses of Antarctic ice towards the Middle East, in order to combat drought and meet the needs of its population (Antarctica contains 80% of the planet's freshwater reserves).

These icebergs, on the other side, can present a tremendous threat to navigation and commerce, especially in the case of the large ones, such as Larsen C, which is every day increasingly closer to a collapse. The consequences may be tragic - a huge iceberg of 5,800 square kilometres left adrift.

Countries with different weight

Although, due to the disadvantages resulting from the remoteness of the continent and its harsh and unfavourable conditions, a possible exploitation of Antarctica is not foreseen for the short run and remains now more  hypothetical rather than real, there is still a risk of future deployment of economic activity in the Antarctic region worldwide.

The latter will depend on international alignments that may arise.

The alignments in relation to the Antarctica follow the administration structure imposed by the Treaty, which includes three categories of members:

  • The original signatories (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South African Republic, Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States) participating in a full right in the consultative meetings of the AT where decisions are made.

  • Those States that wish to join and, having developed activities important scientists, obtain the consent to participate in the Consultative meetings (for example: Poland, Germany, India, Brazil, China and Uruguay).

  • Finally, the States that adhere, but, because of not carrying out a significant scientific activity, cannot participate in decision-making (Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Hungary, Bulgaria, Peru, Italy, New Guinea, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania and Finland).

A similar situation of collision of interests among the international actors is evident at the opposite pole of the Earth, the Arctic. Its climatic conditions have much warmer temperatures that allow the melting of its sensitive layer of ice. So, the thaw caused by the global warming makes the Arctic's energy wealth more and more accessible (it is estimated that it harbours 13% of the oil and 30% of the natural gas that remains in the planet). As a direct consequence of that, the struggle for gaining rights to exploit it is being intensified between countries such as, Denmark, Canada, the United States, Norway and Russia.

On the other hand there is China, for which the thawing has a lot of positive consequences, such as the opening of new inter-oceanic navigation routes between northern Europe and much shorter Shanghai, or easier access to mining areas like Greenland.

In light of the above considerations (the abundance of essential minerals in technology, the opening of new routes or maritime transport and the fact that the lands located in the Arctic Circle are habitable, along with benevolent conditions and easier access), it is very likely that the Arctic may be integrated into the world economic structure much sooner than Antarctica.

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