WORLD

A threatened continent

MARCUS GEE June 27 1988
WORLD

A threatened continent

MARCUS GEE June 27 1988

A threatened continent

WORLD

ANTARCTICA

With its calm, protected waters, Whalers’ Bay on Antarctica’s Deception Island serves as a haven for marine animals. Along beaches of black volcanic sand, against a backdrop of snow-white mountains, thousands of elephant seals and penguins bask in the sun. But the potential mineral wealth of the island—and the others in the South Shetland chain that lie off the Antarctic Peninsula— has put the wildlife at risk. Environmentalists say that after an interval of almost 30 years, during which scientists have been almost the only visitors, a wave of mineral-hungry invaders could damage the continent’s delicate ecology. The reason for their alarm: an international convention

signed earlier this month permitting limited development of Antarctica’s resources.

Since 1959, a unique and highly successful international treaty has kept Antarctica a demilitarized continent without frontiers, passports or currency, where 38 nations co-operate in the name of science. The territorial claims of seven nations were frozen under the Antarctic Treaty, including the overlapping claims of Britain, Argentina and Chile. And the signatories have observed an informal moratorium on resource development. Now, under the convention signed in Wellington, New Zealand, on June 2, they would allow some exploration and development in areas approved by treaty nations. Supporters of the convention-

signed by Canada and 32 other countries—say that its environmental safeguards will be among the toughest in the world. But environmentalists say that they are skeptical. The activist group Greenpeace—whose experts claim that even a minor oil spill could take 500 years to disperse in Antarctica’s rarified environment—is campaigning to have the continent declared a so-called world park. Said Greenpeace’s Maj de Poorter, a Belgian zoologist: “These islands were discov-

ered in 1819, and by 1822 they stopped sealing here because hundreds of thousands of seals had been wiped out. We’re afraid the same commercial spirit will prevail when exploitation of minerals starts.”

Resource companies have sought to exploit the continent’s mineral riches ever since members of Capt. Robert Scott’s ill-fated British expedition collected 35 lb. of geological specimens in 1912. A 1974 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there might be up to 45 billion barrels of oil under the floor of the Ross Sea, facing New Zealand—eight times the offshore reserves of Alaska. Traces of gold, uranium, copper, silver and other rare metals have also been found. Yet most of those riches lie under a mile-thick crust of slowly moving ice. And some of the most promising offshore areas are under floating ice shelves.

Under the new convention, companies could conduct relatively harmless seismic tests without prior approval, but any major exploration or development involving blasting or deep drilling would have to undergo the scrutiny of a special regulatory commission. “The provisions for environmental protection are of a kind never used anywhere in the world,” said one London-based British diplomat who helped negotiate the convention. “They are very tough indeed.”

Despite those safeguards, some environmentalists say that science may lose the Earth’s last great natural laboratory. “We fear that much of the international scientific co-operation will diminish as scientists are instructed that the work they are doing is now prospecting and not to be shared,” said Greenpeace spokesman Roger Wilson of New Zealand.

The 20 full members of the treaty are required to keep an active scientific presence in the Antarctic, and some qualify by maintaining small meteorological stations. Major countries, such as the United States and Britain, have established sophisticated scientific bases. At Palmer Station, the U.S. base at Anvers Island, midway down the Antarctic Peninsula, marine biologists are studying krill, the high-protein, shrimp-like organisms found in immense numbers in Antarctic waters.

Canada joined the treaty as a nonvoting member last month. Although there are no plans to establish a permanent scientific base, Canadian scientists say that they hope to gain access to a range of data that will help Canada in its own Arctic. “We need a lot more information from both Poles if we are going to manage our own Arctic properly,” said Fred Roots, science adviser to the federal environment department. Canadian scientists have been travelling to Antarctica for years and working with colleagues from other nations. And in recent years, tour operators have begun flying groups of wealthy Canadian tourists to the South Pole.

The Antarctic Treaty is subject to renegotiation after 1991. And with the continent’s mineral wealth beckoning, Greenpeace says that it will be difficult to prevent a rush of exploration and development that would undo 30 years of relative peace. Since the massive hunts of last century, the seals of Deception Island have recovered their numbers— although commercial fishing has begun on a large scale. As well, whales now come up to play around passing ships. But environmentalists say that unless the countries that want to develop the Antarctic exercise scrupulous care, the second human invasion could be even more devastating than the first.

MARCUS GEE

RICHARD HOUSE