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Ultimately, does China or Russia (or the USA or Chile or someone else) stand to benefit the most from Antarctica?

Everyone is staking their claim to Antarctica these days; China just built its fourth research base there, which is shaped like a lantern. China’s now spending about $55 million per year on the Antarctic; 15-20 years ago, they were spending $20 million/year on the region. Ultimately, no one owns the region because of the Antarctic Treaty, and all the participating nations (it’s about 50 now) have agreed not to mine or otherwise exploit the area until at least 2048 (that’s a long time; Sasha Obama could be the VP by then). That doesn’t stop multiple countries from establishing large research bases there and — literally and figuratively — putting their flags in the ice.

Here’s a visual look at where things stand:

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Antarctica is a huge deal for two reasons: first, it may contain 203 billion barrels of usable oil, which would make it the third-largest oil reserves in the world. Second, it contains 90 percent of the world’s fresh water; if water demand truly exceeds water supply by 40 percent come 2030 (current projections), that Antarctic water could become crucial to some areas of the world even being habitable. (Now of course, this means an effective infrastructure would need to be developed to get the water from A to B, and the idea of sucking water out of Antarctica to power someplace like Las Vegas is a little bit depressing.)

2048 is really the key date:

“From 2048, only the consultative countries of the Antarctic Treaty will have the right to vote [on any proposed changes to the treaty],” says Marcello Melo da Gama, deputy secretary of Brazil’s Inter-ministerial Commission for the Resources of the Sea (CIRM), the national agency responsible for implementing the country’s Antarctic programme. Twenty-eight countries are consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty because they were original signatories or now conduct substantial research in Antarctica.

“And countries need to have a presence in Antarctica and carry out scientific research there and even have a research base in order to become a consultative party — that is one of the political and strategic reasons to have a base in Antarctica.”

Currently, 29 countries have a total of 82 research stations in Antarctica. It seems like in the short-term — the run-up to 2048, then — Chile will probably benefit the most. Simply because of its proximity to the continent, logistically it makes the most sense for other nations to partner with Chile on the research/development side. Check this out, from a Chilean scientist:

“For the US Antarctic programme for example, it is nine times more expensive to send a researcher to Antarctica than for the Chilean programme to do the same with a national researcher. China is now building icebreakers and South Korea has just launched one. Those countries have to bridge the same huge gaps to work in Antarctica. Tightening cooperation with Chile could reduce those gaps by saving money in logistics.”

The sad aspect to this whole story is that eventually, the last wilderness on Earth will become another oil boom town — right now, there’s about 4500 people living in Antarctica during the summer; that number will probably be about 10x higher by 2050 — because the short-term always seems to matter more than the long-term. If you’re betting on an ultimate winner in the race for these resources, you’d probably be foolish to bet against the U.S. and its global cop status:

So it seems that the ingredients for conflict are slowly being added to the spicy Antarctic political stew (these concerns have been noted elsewhere).   How one resolves these new interests in the mineral rights of Antarctica, with the interests of the existing parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, I am not sure.  But let’s be clear.  The US will not lose out in any future negotiations that allow further exploitation of the Antarctic.  In a hypothetical future scenario where mining becomes allowable under the treaty system, does anyone really expect the US respect the rights established by existing territorial claims? I don’t.

No idea how this will ultimately play out, but it’s arguably one of the biggest issues of the next 35 years globally.

Ted Bauer

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