Antarctica or Arctic, protect and preserve

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am

The way the world saw itself and its environment changed on October 4, 1957, with the Soviet Union's launch of the first space vehicle, Sputnik 1. While the most immediate effect was the space race with the rival US, a more profound result was a fertile period in international rule-making to allay friction over competition, not only for outer space but also for parts of the world that had not yet been claimed by governments, among them Antarctica, continental shelves and the high seas.

For fragile environments such as Antarctica, the UN-brokered rules proved a boon. With common sense prevailing and development strictly regulated, the continent has been spared the environmental damage suffered by much of the Earth.

There is, however, one area that the agreements did not cover: the Arctic. Melting ice as a result of global warming has meant the opening of new sea lanes and a report that the seabed could contain as much as 25 per cent of the world's oil reserves. This, with a looming deadline for nations to prove their ownership, has prompted a race for countries bordering the region to stake a claim.

Russia has been the most proactive, planting a metal flag on the seabed and claiming that the area is part of its continental shelf. A Danish expedition left for the region yesterday, while Canada, Norway and the US have filed competing claims.

Oil and other minerals beneath the North Pole are still beyond the reach of present technologies. Apart from treaties, that is also why Antarctica and the open seas have been spared such investigation. New technological developments will test agreements, however.

The UN holds the key to the world's environmental preservation. A UN commission can determine ownership of the Arctic, but oil exploration will damage the pristine area, while the emissions that are caused when oil is burned to produce electricity and power vehicles will contribute further to global warming.

Like Antarctica, the Arctic must be classified as an environmental sanctuary for scientific study only. Additionally, existing agreements protecting the world's land must be strengthened.