Great white wilderness in shadow of exploitation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 2006, 12:00am

One thing the world got right and has stayed largely true to is the peace and protection of the Antarctic.

Under the Antarctic Treaty, no country can lay claim to it or is locked out of it. It is off-limits to militarisation, nuclear activities and mineral exploration and is the world's biggest scientific research park.

The Great White South thus seems safely isolated from the world's troubles, yet it is falling under their shadow.

There are fears that the last unspoiled continent may one day have its price - a price that may be found in the soaring markets for oil, gas and minerals, and in the lengths to which countries are prepared to go to ensure security of supplies.

Relevant examples are easy to find. The endless permutations of conflict and uncertainty in the oil-rich Middle East drive a search for more stable supplies. One result is the Bush administration's controversial move to allow exploration for more secure indigenous oil supplies in the Alaskan wilderness.

It should not come as a surprise, as we report on the previous page, that there are signs countries are jockeying for position in the Antarctic in the event a world energy crisis leads to a relaxation - or worse disregard - of a ban on exploitation.

Many countries from the other side of the world, including Estonia, Belgium, the Czech Republic and South Korea, plan to build Antarctic research stations, ahead of Polar Year in 2007-08, in the hope that this will give them a place at the table in any future talks over development on the continent.

For 45 years the Antarctic Treaty has enshrined the ideal of international co-operation, in which territorial claims are set aside. Under a separate agreement, mining is banned until 2048 at least.

These pacts have worked well but increasing human activity was inevitable. Projects such as a 1,600km American ice highway and a 3km Australian international ice runway were bound to make conservationists uneasy.

It is to be hoped we can rely on Russian assurances that kerosene being used to lubricate drilling into a sub-glacial freshwater lake 4km beneath the surface will not pollute it before eagerly awaited research can begin.

However justifiable in research terms, these developments are a reminder of the danger of creeping exploitation. The core values of the Antarctic Treaty have never been more important. The southern continent is already a bellwether of environmental degradation. It is shedding ice amid concerns about global warming and lies under the biggest hole in the Earth's ozone layer.

A more effective response to an energy crisis is to be found in a determined effort by developed countries to encourage energy efficiency and develop alternative - and cleaner - fuels, rather than in drilling and digging in a vulnerable part of the world.