Hot issue, cold reality
The frozen continent's delicate environment is protected until 2048, but a world hungry for resources is eager to dive in despite scientific protests, writes Nick Squires
It is the seventh largest body of freshwater in the world, yet it has never been glimpsed by human eyes. Lake Vostok is hidden nearly 4km beneath the wind-blasted surface of Antarctica, a giant sub-glacial pocket which scientists believe could harbour previously undiscovered forms of life, perhaps even bizarre new species of fish.
But the 250km-long lake and its mysterious inhabitants may not remain undisturbed for much longer. A team of Russian scientists is close to penetrating the lake with a bore, dumping 65 tonnes of kerosine lubricant in the process. They have drilled to a depth of 3,600 metres and are about 100 metres away from breaking through the last section of ice to the water beneath.
There are grave concerns among international Antarctic experts that Lake Vostok could be irreparably polluted by the exploration.
The contentious Russian experiment is one of a clutch of activities which are threatening an end to Antarctica's isolation and pristine state.
Once the domain of doughty explorers such as Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, Antarctica at the beginning of the 21st century is becoming increasingly crowded.
An explosion in tourism, an expansion in the number of scientific bases, a US-built 'ice highway' and plans for air links from Australia and South Africa are all part of a dramatic increase in human activity.
Looming large over the rise in international interest is the prospect of oil, gas and minerals exploration.
By international agreement, mining in Antarctica has been banned until 2048 at the earliest. But there are signs that countries are jockeying for position in the event that soaring oil prices and a world energy crisis could lead to the relaxation of the ban, sparking not so much a gold rush as a cold rush.
China is one of several countries which plans to add to the 59 permanent and seasonal scientific stations in Antarctica. It now has two: Zhong Shan on the shores of Prydz Bay, close to Australia's Davis facility, and the Great Wall station, on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Chinese maintain an active Antarctic presence, launching expeditions into the interior and now surveying an area more than 1,000km from the coast for their third base.
'There were some concerns when China set up its Antarctic programme in the mid-1980s about whether they'd adhere to minimum impact regulations and if they were just going in to wave the flag,' said Marcus Haward, an Antarctica policy specialist at the University of Tasmania. 'But the Chinese have emerged as a respected and senior member of the treaty system.'
China may be on the other side of the world from the frozen continent, but it is by no means the most unlikely nation to take an interest in Antarctica.
Among the countries which plan to build stations in the near future are Estonia, Belgium, South Korea and the Czech Republic.
The building boom is partly linked to the fact that 2007-08 has been designated International Polar Year and countries are gearing up to launch major research projects. But it also reflects a determination by a growing number of states to establish a toehold amid the ice fields and icebergs.
'By being at the table they are able to influence negotiations over future developments in Antarctica,' said Dr Haward. 'It's a case of being inside the tent when the key decisions are made.'
India recently caused ripples of concern by announcing that it wants to build a new base in the Larsemann Hills, in an area which by international consent has been designated a construction-free zone.
The issue will be discussed at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which next year happens to be in Delhi. But the Indians show no signs of backing down.
Antarctica is divided into cake-shaped slices owned by seven countries: Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, Norway and New Zealand.
But under the Antarctic Treaty, concluded at the height of the cold war in 1959, these claims have been set aside and bases can be built by any of the treaty's 45 signatory countries.
Just as the cramped timber huts in which the early explorers huddled a century ago have been replaced by hi-tech scientific bases, so too have husky dogs and sledges given way to modern means of transport.
The US has been criticised for blazing a 1,600km-long ice highway from its McMurdo station, on the coast of the Ross Sea, to the South Pole.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mount Everest, condemned the HK$155 million project, warning that it damages the continent's fragile environment. 'I think it's terrible,' he said of the project two years ago. 'I'm very strongly opposed to it.'
The track will be used to haul hundreds of tonnes of equipment across ice fields, crevasses and mountain ranges.
Getting to Antarctica is also becoming easier, with South Africa planning to establish an air link across the Southern Ocean, and Australia building an ice runway at its Casey base.
The 3km-long runway, which will start operating next year, will accommodate planes from Hobart, Tasmania, enabling scientists to avoid a gruelling sea passage. The 3,450km flight will take about 10 hours.
While the number of scientists in Antarctica is still relatively small, the number of tourists increases every year. Drawn by the blue glaciers, penguin colonies and extraordinary landscape, and undeterred by the high cost, more than 30,000 tourists visited the continent last summer, compared with 5,000 visitors in 1990.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators says the number of tourists is increasing by a startling 15 per cent a year. Boats capable of carrying up to 800 passengers are now being used, some of them equipped with helicopters to whisk high-paying clients to previously unvisited areas.
'Mass commercial tourism has arrived in the Antarctic,' said the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a Washington-based umbrella group representing 150 non-governmental organisations in more than 40 countries.The coalition is concerned that there is no regulation of tourism under the Antarctic Treaty. 'There is essentially no constraint on where you can go, what you can do, and how many of you can do it,' the lobby group said.
While most tourists return from Antarctica with a sense of awe at the continent's beauty and isolation, one recent visitor came back with a rather different viewpoint.
Barnaby Joyce, a conservative MP in the Australian parliament, went on a fact-finding trip to Antarctica and on his return declared that Canberra should think about mining the frozen continent. 'There's minerals there, there's gold, there's iron ore, there's coal, there's huge fish resources,' Senator Joyce said.
'What you have to ask is, 'do I turn my head and allow another country to exploit my resources, or do I position myself in such a way that I'm going to exploit it myself before they get there?''
His suggestion caused a furore and was roundly condemned by all the main political parties.
'He's gone to the cathedral and seen only the gold,' said the leader of the Green Party, Bob Brown.
But Senator Joyce was not the first to cast an envious eye over the vast reserves of gas and coal which are believed to lie beneath the ice.
There was alarm five years ago when Russian scientists talked of the 'enormous potential' of Antarctic mining.
Mining is explicitly banned under the Madrid Protocol of 1993, and most experts believe that aside from the ethical and environmental issues, it would be ruinously expensive to mine, process and transport minerals from Antarctica.
But with oil prices going through the roof, and the world's supply running out, there may come a time when it would be viable. For now, the only drilling taking place is the Russian experiment at Lake Vostok.
The issue was discussed at the Antarctic Treaty meeting, in Edinburgh in June. 'There was a great deal of environmental disquiet,' said Tony Press, head of the Australian Antarctic Division. 'Some scientists said it's not necessary to penetrate the lake at all, that the Russians could instead take samples from the ice close to the lake.'
Russia assured the meeting that a similar operation to drill into a sub-glacial lake in Greenland was successfully carried out without any pollution.
But the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition is unconvinced. 'There is a compelling reason to reassess all drilling activity,' the coalition said at the Edinburgh meeting. 'Any risk to [the lake] through premature penetration is unacceptable.'
'I think there'd have to be an incredible resources crisis before it became economically viable to mine,' Dr Haward said. 'The cost would be astronomical. It's a last resort, but who knows what might happen by 2048?'