The treaty that governs the largest desert in the world is coming up for renewal in 2048. The year the Antarctic Treaty entered into force, 1961, most of the world was still watching television in black and white. On its face, this seems like something that we should be able to ignore: A desert, by definition, means that there are no permanent settlements, and 30 years is a long time. However, the seeds for changes that could come to the treaty are being planted now, and these could have worldwide consequences.
The Antarctic Treaty protects the world’s only uninhabited continent and preserves its territory as an area to be used “for peaceful purposes only.” It declares that “freedom of scientific research investigation and cooperation” in the region shall continue. Antarctica has been the site of many important scientific discoveries. For instance, researchers found viable microbial ecosystems nearly half a mile beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. The finding has implications for the possibility of life in other extreme environments, such as the moon.
Antarctica vs. Arctic
Some of the microbes that exist in the depths of Antarctica can derive energy from mining rocks. The existence of rocks and minerals under the ice sheet is a key distinction between Antarctica and the earth’s other extreme, the Arctic. The Antarctic landmass is about 5.5 million square miles, nearly 1.5 times the size of the United States or Brazil. In contrast, there is no landmass in the Arctic: The region is composed entirely of ice sheets floating on top of the Arctic Ocean.
Given the vast landmass that makes up Antarctica, it is likely that there are significant mineral deposits in the continent. Scientific expeditions have found valuable minerals including antimony, chromium, copper, gold, lead, molybdenum, tin, uranium, and zinc. In early 2021, scientists found a mineral in Antarctica, known as jarosite, which is rarely seen on Earth, but most commonly found on Mars. To date none of these mineral deposits have been identified as commercially viable given the high cost of recovering any deposits from under the ice sheet.
All of this could change in the future in a way similar to how the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) updates estimates for oil reserves from probable reserves (known accumulations more than 50 percent likely to be recovered) to proven (able to be recovered under current economic and technical conditions). For example, in 1970 there were 39 billion barrels of proven oil reserves in the United States. Given changes in technology and the price of oil, proven oil reserves today are closer to 47 billion barrels. The increase doesn’t represent the discovery of new oil (according to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S produced some 11 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2021), but the creation of new technology that allows access to previously inaccessible deposits.
There is speculation that the same dynamic could be true in Antarctica: Technology breakthroughs and minerals prices could make some of the deposits available, in the only unmined continent in the world, commercially viable. Any such activity is currently banned under Article 7 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which clearly states that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”
Signed in 1991, the protocol has been ratified by 34 countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, the United States, and Uruguay. Article 25 of the protocol states that: “If, after the expiration of 50 years […] any of the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties so requests, a conference shall be held as soon as practicable to review the operation of this protocol.” In other words, in 2048, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) consultative parties could reject anti-mining regulation and start stripping Antarctica of its mineral resources, leading the continent toward a radically different future.
While some may be of the opinion that it’s too early to think about a document that won’t be negotiated for another 26 years, consider that the internet has only been made available to the public for some 30 years. The U.S. went from having around 5 million people subscribing to an online service in 1994, to over 302 million internet users in 2021. Not thinking about Antarctica today could be similar to not thinking about the internet when it became mainstream. Already in 1998, the Chicago Tribune quoted a chief negotiator for the U.S. on polar affairs, R. Tucker Scully, saying that “it is our judgment that if one waits until after it is known there are minerals, it would be more difficult to negotiate under the gun of knowing there are valuable resources there.” In other words, if a major mineral discovery is made in the absence of an international agreement about Antarctic minerals, an unregulated “gold rush” could follow, unraveling the ATS and damaging all U.S. Antarctic interests.
National Science Foundation
The United States supports the Antarctic Treaty through the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is administered by the National Science Foundation. The leadership role that the U.S. federal agency plays in Antarctica reflects the goals and spirit of the Treaty in that it ensures that the region is preserved for scientific discovery. This contrasts with the other pole, the Arctic, for which the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force both released a strategy (2021 and 2020 respectively). The U.S. Navy released a strategic blueprint in 2021, and the U.S. Coast Guard released a strategic outlook in 2019. The U.S. Army strategy for the Arctic identifies the region as “a corridor for expanded strategic great power competition.”
Interestingly, the above-referenced strategy mentions energy resources and minerals as drivers of strategic great power competition. This is relevant because while there is a framework in place to protect the environment in the Arctic, the Declaration on the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy doesn’t ban mining but rather aims to “provide for the protection, enhancement, and restoration of environmental quality and the sustainable utilization of natural resources” in the region.
Though the U.S. Department of Defense doesn’t directly support activities in Antarctica, defense agencies in other countries are involved in supporting the region. Chile and Argentina, for example, which both have claims in Antarctica, maintain icebreakers operated by their respective navies that are used primarily to deliver support to their research stations. An increase in activities in Antarctica would bring with it greater responsibilities for these militaries.
The document that would determine what kinds of activities are permitted in the continent will also be renewed in 2048. The process to get to that renewal is already underway. Since its creation, membership in the ATS has expanded from the original 12 consultative parties to 29. The relative newcomers to the ATS include China (1983), as well as Venezuela (1999) and Belarus (2006) as non-consultative parties. All of the consultative party members will get the opportunity to vote on the rules that will govern the continent. Like in the Arctic Council, decisions in the ATS must be made by consensus. This means that, in practice, each and every party holds veto power.
While the Arctic has been getting all the attention from policymakers and defense wonks, Antarctica has been mostly left in the dark. Given that the system that guarantees the current peaceful nature of the continent is not one that exists in perpetuity, it is important that those interested in preserving it for peace and scientific purposes remain engaged in its issues and active in its governance. Investing in Antarctica and planning for possible futures for the continent should start today.