17 January 2008

Great Game 2.0: Antarctica

A new version of Great Game is afoot, this time centred on Antarctica and its potential resources. The region will likely be a flashpoint in the medium- to long-term future as oil gets scarce and the region becomes more accessible due to climate change. The players are already lining up and the opening moves are being made. It's every man for himself.

As a result of humanity's CO2 enhancement experiment, the climate of Antarctica is changing. Sea ice surrounding the continent is expanding, but the significance of any trend is small. The mechanisms controlling the size of the sea ice are poorly understood, but it is known that there is some link with ENSO (which itself may be changing from global warming). A new, comprehensive study shows that as a whole, the Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass. This is apparently focused on the West sheet and on the Antarctic Peninsula. The melting of the ice sheet could have serious implications for sea level rise around the world. Some caution is urged, as more studies are needed to confirm the result. Still the results seem consistent with earlier research (using a different method) noted earlier on planet doom?. There is some suggestion that these sorts of changes could result in the local extinction of Adelie penguins on the Peninsula within a decade.

Antarctica also potentially represents a vast, untapped source of resources, especially oil. As it was once part of the super-continent Gondwanaland (along with South America, Africa and Australia) and covered with extensive vegetation, many believe it may contain a so-called supergiant oil field. The Ross and Weddell Sea regions alone are estimated to contain 50 billion barrels of oil, roughly equivalent to Alaskan reserves. While this oil is difficult to obtain given Antarctica's extreme conditions, oil prices of $150-200 a barrel (later this year?) make extraction here more economically feasible. Climate change may act to make the area more accessible. The treaty prohibiting mineral resource exploitation is set to expire in 2048, but as peak oil bites this will probably fall by the wayside before then.

Indeed, like dogs marking the trees they pass, many nations are already acting in such a way as to establish (or reinforce) claims to the continent. Some of these efforts were noted in an earlier post. They have picked up pace in the ongoing austral summer. Korea is looking to establish another base. The Chinese have climbed the highest peak on the Antarctic ice sheet for the second time. Venezuela is showing some interest (but no action yet). Chile is also acting to protect its claim, with the re-establishment of bases and visits by high-level military officials.

It is Australia, already claiming some 42% of the continent, who are making the boldest moves in the game. Many of these moves are made ostensibly for scientific and environmental reasons. These are likely just cover stories. The country has established a passenger air service to the continent, the first of its kind, reducing the time it takes to reach the continent (from Hobart) to a mere five hours. The ongoing kerfuffle with Japan over their 'scientific whaling' program is another bold gambit. While essentially a policy that I personally support (let's hear it for the 'sea-hippies'), we should not be fooled about what it really means. This started when the protesters tried to serve notice that the whalers are in violation of Australian law, a claim which Japan doesn't recognize, and which is unenforcible anyway. Rudd (the Australian PM) is obviously thinking several moves ahead, attempting to establish some moral validity to back up the claims to sovereignty, looking to gain a large slice of any future pie to be had. Nations don't risk diplomatic incidents over whales.

The game has begun. It's likely to be long and arduous, and we will likely all be losers in the end as we ravage the last pristine place on Earth to continue living our unsustainable lives.


Image: NASA Visible Earth

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