The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region and beyond. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and lands surrounding Australia.
ANTARCTICA – ECONOMY
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- Future Resources
In Antarctica, scientific pursuits and not commercial undertakings are the primary forms of most human activity. Fishing off the coast and tourism, industries that are both based abroad, comprise the limited economic activity on this desolate continent, while researchers at a few scattered facilities make up Antarctica’s small temporary population. The Antarctic dollar, a mock-up souvenir item sold in the United States and Canada stations, is not legal tender.
Coal, hydrocarbons, iron ore, platinum, copper, chromium, nickel, gold and other minerals have all been found on and around Antarctica, but not in large enough quantities to exploit. Even if they had been discovered in great quantities, the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty prohibits nations and individuals from performing largescale extractions and from actively competing for these minerals. In 1998, a compromise agreement was reached to place an indefinite ban on mining – a ban that will not be reviewed again until 2048, further limiting economic development and exploitation.
Yet, the southern continent is getting busier. As Antarctica warms and technology advances, access is steadily increasing, and alternative economic activities are becoming more viable. There has been constant rhetoric and speculation (particularly in the media) about mining and ‘prospecting’ by some state parties. However, the freedom to conduct scientific research anywhere in the Antarctic, especially since there’s no definition of what ‘scientific research’ means, is immutable. All countries actively engaged in Antarctic research have projects that provide information about minerals potential which they might try to realise. But overturning the permanent mining ban will not be a simple matter. Consensus on this topic is unlikely in the foreseeable future, therefore Antarctic minerals are resources of a last resort and not of current concern.
The search for economic resources led to the first sustained human interaction in Antarctica. Before science became the modern currency of Antarctica, in terms of economics, there were essentially two activities that dominated the frozen continent’s past: sealing and whaling.
In the 1700s and 1800s, long before the continent of Antarctica was discovered, southern fur seals were almost completely wiped out by commercial ventures from Europe and North America. Fur seal pelts were extremely popular, largely for their dense, short, fibred fur and were often made into winter coats. In pursuit of more of these seals, Captain James Cook voyaged to the island of South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there were large numbers of seals in the region. Within 25 years of being discovered, the summer catch around this island had climbed to over 100,000 seals a year, and by 1822, the southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia.
Whaling began in the Antarctic waters in the 1800s, with humpback whales being the primary target of most commercial fishing vessels. Within ten years, the humpback species became extremely rare in these waters, and the development of new technologies allowed fishermen to go after the much faster-swimming blue whales. By 1930, nearly 30,000 blue whales had been caught off the coast of Antarctica. By 1940, blue whales also became scarce, and the focus shifted, first to the fin whales (27,000 caught during the 1940s), followed by the sperm whale and then the sei whale. When they also became endangered, fishermen even went after the smaller minke whale species. For an insight into historical whaling, check out the following video.
Whaling and sealing in Antarctica during the 19th and 20th centuries caused an upset in the continent’s ecosystem that took decades to repair. The slaughter of marine populations was relentless, and many feared their dwindling numbers would lead to a disastrous collapse of the region’s bio-system. Before the species involved were wiped out, two commissions were set up to study the effects of these unsustainable economic activities.
One of these commissions was entitled the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) signed in February 1972. Generally, the CCAS was initiated to curtail the over-exploitation of fur seals and the disastrous effects on seal stocks. The CCAS established rules for commercial sealing, with permissible catch limits for some species, including the crabeater, leopard, and weddell seals. A zoning system, which included closed hunting seasons in various areas, was also drawn up, and certain species of fur seal, such as the Ross Seal, were given total protection from sealers.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up earlier in 1946, but only became effective decades later. In fact, the only thing that ultimately drove companies from the business of whaling was a drop in profits – a drop due to a lack of whales in the region to a point in which there were not many left to kill. The conservation efforts of the IWC came just in time. In the 1960s, for example, blue whales and humpback whales became fully protected; a level of protection that was then extended to fin and sei whales in the 1970s. Eventually, in 1986, the IWC suspended all commercial whaling whatsoever. Whales are now protected by the 88 parties – including Australia – to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. At the height of the global whaling industry there were as few as 1,500 humpback whales in Australian waters; however, after 60 years of conservation the population is estimated at 40,000 individuals and growing. In early March 2022, the Australian government took humpback whales off its list of endangered species while still keeping protections.
Today, the Antarctic Treaty 1961 means no such economic activities are permitted under the 60 degrees line. The Treaty also states that no Antarctic bird or land animal can be killed or captured without a permit: granted only for scientific reasons. To learn more about conservation efforts, watch the following video by the National Geographic.
The largest economic activity of value in Antarctica is the capture and offshore trading of fish. Last year alone, fisheries on the continent reportedly landed nearly 150,000 tonnes of fish. It is the only large-scale resource exploitation that is going on in Antarctica today. Most other world fisheries have been over-exploited, even where controls are in place to prevent it, which is a concern for Antarctic fisheries too. Krill are the largest fishery in the Antarctic at the present time.
The fisheries of Antarctica target three main species: Patagonian toothfish, Antarctica toothfish, mackerel icefish, and Antarctic krill. The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) came into force in 1982 and determines the recommended catch limits and licensing requirements for all marine species in Antarctica. The CCAMLR was established chiefly because of concerns that an increase in krill catches in the Southern Ocean could have serious effects on the populations. Krill is a major and vital part of the Antarctic food web and so disturbances to populations could have major and far-reaching effects on the whole ecosystem. The Convention Area represents around 10% of the Earth’s oceans and has a surface area of 35,716,100 square kilometres.
The protection of fisheries is different to other controls on the white continent because the goal is sustainable exploitation rather than complete protection. Not only is the target species considered, but the effect of fishing that species on other dependent or associated species is also taken into consideration too. Any fishing boats are required to report their catches so that the stock taken can be assessed. Despite these protections, unregulated fishing was a very serious problem in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Impacting the Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass): in 1997/98 about 11,000 tonnes were caught legally in the CCAMLR area, but the illegal catch was estimated to be 32,000 tonnes.
Southern Ocean krill is one of the greatest unexploited fisheries stocks. There are a few reasons that krill are so underexploited; two of which are the cost of fishing in the Southern Ocean and the difficulty in producing saleable products since they are delicate creatures that are not pleasant to consume. The initial requirement to regulate the krill fishery by 1982 became less urgent due to a slowdown in the catch of krill from the early 1990s. Catches of 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes a year through the 1980s dropped to less than 100,000 tonnes by 1993 due to the fall of the Soviet Union (and the subsequent pullback of the country's massive fishing fleet). Krill oils do contain high levels of omega-3 which makes them valuable to the pharmaceutical and complementary health food markets; a market that started around 2002 and has been growing since. Krill is also increasingly used as a foodstuff to feed farmed fish.
The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is vital for global food security. The toothfish fishery in Antarctica is one of Australia’s most commercially viable fisheries even given the difficulties of operating in the harsh Southern Ocean. Careful regulation, monitoring, and significant enforcement activities by countries such as Australia and France have seen illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing for toothfish fall to near-zero levels in waters under national jurisdiction. Illegal fishing persists elsewhere in the CCAMLR area, however.
Tourism has existed in Antarctica since 1957. Starting as small-scale ‘expedition tourism’ and growing over the decades into commercial tourism. The industry is currently subject to the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol; basically self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which accounts for around 95% of all tourist activity. Travel to the white continent is done by small or medium ship, with a focus on specific scenic locations with accessible concentrations of iconic wildlife. An estimated 70,000 tourists, most arriving by commercial ship, visit Antarctica each year – a number that has risen steadily since the beginning of the decade.
Rising tourism in the Antarctic region has led to many environmental concerns and political debate. At issue is how to protect the Antarctic landscape and its ecological community, while still allowing tourists to visit and experience the continent for themselves. Strict visitor guidelines are now in place to help minimise potential damage, but there continues to be a very real threat of a significant environmental disaster, particularly one caused by a cruise vessel running aground. Before the 1980s, only a few hundred tourists visited Antarctica every summer. The total number of tourists visiting Antarctica in the 2019/20 season was around 74,000.
No commercial or private aircraft are permitted to land on Antarctica. Sightseeing over-flights took place for many years – flying over the white continent but never landing – with operators in Chile, Australia, and New Zealand, but these were suspended after the Erebus Tragedy. In 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901, on an over-flight of Antarctica, crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 people on board. Today, the only company that offers these types of over-flights to Antarctica is Qantas Airlines of Australia, which resumed the flights in 2020. The tour company Antarctica Flights charters a Qantas jumbo a few times a year to take tourists on a sightseeing 12-hour trip of the most remote continent. Most visitors travel on passenger vessels to the Antarctic Peninsula region, which can be reached from South American ports in a few days. The growth in tourism means vloggers now have access to the frozen wasteland. Check out one experience in the video below.
While tourists may only spend a small time on landings, usually just a few hours, that time is relatively high-impact when compared to a research worker who spends most of their time on a permanently or semi-permanently occupied base. Tourists want to visit the most picturesque and wildlife-rich areas of Antarctica. Land activities include camping, hiking, and cross-country skiing. Such areas that are also easily accessible by the kind of small boats that take tourists from their ship to shore are relatively rare in Antarctica so, despite its enormous size, tourists become concentrated in a few areas. A cruise ship can carry far more people than the entire compliment of Antarctic bases. However, in 2009 new regulations were enforced that stopped large vessels from operating in Antarctic waters due to their heavier fuel oils. Now ships can only land 100 people at a time and those that carry over 500 people are not allowed to access any landing sites on the southern continent.
Another concern comes from smaller expeditions by individuals or small parties that are becoming increasingly common. Antarctica requires careful planning and a series of fail-safe rescue procedures if anything goes wrong. These smaller expeditions sometimes fail to undergo adequate risk management and so, resort to ‘humanitarian’ requests for aid from nearby national bases when they get into difficulty. In the last decade, a small helicopter (unsuitable for the task) crashed into the sea off the Antarctic Peninsula requiring rescue and another attempt to fly across Antarctica via the pole in a small aircraft ended with the aircraft crashing and the pilot being rescued by nearby base personnel. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that derelict or crashed vehicles left by private expeditioners will be removed from Antarctica as they should be under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty.
One aspect of Antarctic tourism that restricts visitor numbers is the limited tourist season, this limitation is imposed by the weather and the movements of sea ice. However, the limited tourist season coincides with the breeding season for most Antarctic wildlife with the potential for disturbance. Watch the following video for more information on how tourism impacts the white continent.
Each year, scientists from around 28 nations conduct experiments not reproducible in any other place in the world. In the summer more than 4,000 scientists operate research stations; this number decreases to just over 1,000 in the winter. The U.S. McMurdo Station, which is the largest research station in Antarctica, is capable of housing more than 1,000 scientists, visitors, and tourists. Researchers include biologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists, and meteorologists.
Antarctica is the holder of the world’s most accurate record of past climate. The Antarctic ice sheet has trapped air from many hundreds of thousands of years in the past – probably well over a million years. The air trapped in the ice reveals past climate. Understanding past climate is essential to understanding what the future may look like under climate change. For more information, see the #KYR – Antarctica: Special Issue article.
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses satellites to study the ice and how the continent is changing. Scientists want to know how changes in Earth's climate are affecting Antarctica's ice sheets. They also want to know how changes in Antarctic ice might affect Earth's climate. One tool that NASA uses is the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat). Using ICESat, they can measure changes in size of Antarctica's ice sheets. ICESat also helps track how changes in Earth's atmosphere and climate affect polar ice and global sea levels. Melting ice sheets may impact sea levels all over the world. In September 2018, researchers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency released a high-resolution terrain map – detailed down to the size of a car, and less in some areas – of Antarctica, named the 'Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica'.
Antarctica is also a good place to find meteorites – rocks that fall from space to Earth. The number of meteorites found in Antarctica is equal to the number of meteorites found in the rest of the world combined. Meteorites are easier to see on the white ice and meteorites are preserved in ice for a long time. Thus, meteorites from the white continent are an important area of study of material formed early in the Solar System. Most are thought to come from asteroids, but some may have originated on larger planets. The first meteorite was found in 1912 and named the Adelie Land meteorite. New and rare types of meteorites have been found. The motion of the ice sheet tends to concentrate the meteorites at blocking locations such as mountain ranges, with wind erosion bringing them to the surface after centuries beneath accumulated snowfall.
A rich imagination can envision many possible ways in which Antarctica and its materials might be used to benefit humans. However, such benefits are often offset by economic costs and prohibitions spelled out in the Antarctic Treaty. The continental ice sheet contains nearly 90% of the world’s glacial ice – a huge potential supply of fresh water – but delivery costs and legal issues have precluded any economic value. Antarctica has also been proposed as a long-term deep-freeze storage site for grain and other foods, but calculations show that such usage would not be economically feasible because of excessive shipping, handling, and investment costs. In addition, the Antarctic Treaty prevents the continent from being used as a site for radioactive-waste disposal and storage.
- Stuff | Tourism in Antarctica is booming but its a complicated relationship
- Australian Transport Safety Bureau | Antarctic accident exposes risks of flying in poor weather
- BBC News | Should tourists be banned from Antarctica?
- Polar Journal | Qantas in pursuit of Aurora Australis
- Australian Antarctic Program - News | NASA ice mission launches from Hobart
There is no current economic activity in Antarctica outside of fishing off the coast and small-scale tourism. However, Antarctica is known to have mineral deposits, though any sizeable deposits that are easy to reach are rare and even then, not economically viable to mine. One of the main problems is the vast covering of moving ice streams and glaciers.
Most of the continent is completely covered in snow and ice, usually hundreds or even thousands of meters thick. This poses two problems: finding mineral deposits and then extracting them. Although coal, hydrocarbons, iron ore, platinum, copper, chromium, nickel, gold, and other minerals have been found, they have not been in large enough quantities to warranting economic interest. When the original Treaty was signed, the exploitation of resources was not discussed at all for fear of jeopardising the entire agreement. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty also restricts a struggle for resources. In 1998, a compromise agreement was reached to place an indefinite ban on mining – to be reviewed in 2048 – further limiting economic development and exploitation. Thus, there has never been any commercial mining in Antarctica and there are no known future plans by any member-states to reverse this decision.
Does the mining ban expire in 2048? The short answer is no; the long answer is provided by Article 7 of the Madrid Protocol which simply explains, “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited”. The popular confusion arises from Article 25 (2) that says “If, after the expiration of 50 years from the date of entry into force of this Protocol, any of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties so requests by a communication addressed to the Depositary, a conference shall be held as soon as practicable to review the operation of this Protocol”. As the Protocol came into effect in 1998, the 50 year period falls in 2048. However, the following must occur for the ban on any mining to be overturned:
- Any modification or amendment must be adopted by a majority of the Parties, including 3/4 of the States which were Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties at the time of adoption of this Protocol (Article 25).
- Any such amendment will not enter into force unless it is approved by 3/4 of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, including ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by all States which were Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties at the time of adoption of the Protocol (Article 25).
- If ever the above conditions were met, the prohibition on Antarctic mineral resource activities would continue, unless there was a binding legal regime with an agreement on conditions.
Scientific exploration has demonstrated that while mineral riches exist in Antarctica, the conditions for profitable extraction do not, and over time scientific activities became the main political and economic activity in Antarctica. Natural resource exploitation on the continent has thus far been limited to biological prospecting (that is, the extraction of bioactive compounds for commercial uses, such as for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics). Although mineral resources continue to receive media attention, states are moving away from fossil fuels in order to address climate change. It is more likely that biological (including genetic) resources as well as freshwater and other commercial opportunities in Antarctica will give rise to disputes in the future.
Antarctica's weather, ice, and distance from any industrialised areas mean that mineral extraction would be extremely expensive and extremely dangerous. The icebergs that drift around the continent frequently grind into the ocean floor like billion-tonne ploughs. Pack ice can be blown miles in a day, and transportation even in the relatively ice-free summer months is far from assured. The following video is a deep dive into similar activity – iceberg harvesting dubbed the ‘Cold Rush’ – already taking place in the Arctic waters off Canada.
While the white continent most likely has sufficient quantity of minerals, they are spread out more thinly, making economically viable concentrations rarer than elsewhere. Russia already extracts hydrocarbons from the Arctic, but mining in the Antarctic Treaty Area (up to 60° S) is prohibited under the Madrid Protocol. However, this practice would not be profitable in Antarctica. Even if clean technologies increase demand for rare minerals – such as cobalt that can be found as nodules on the sea floor – there are easier places than Antarctic waters to be exploited first.
Coal has been found in two regions in Antarctica: Transantarctic Mountains and Prince Charles Mountains. One of the Antarctic Treaty nations hired a mining consultant to carry out an economic assessment on potentially mining the Transantarctic Mountains coal. After a brief visit to Antarctica, the conclusion was not to waste money on having an appraisal done. The coal found was low quality – high moisture, high ash content – thin and in broken bands. Far better reserves are found elsewhere on Earth and they are not yet exploited. If the Prince Charles Mountains coal was better and had it been close to a major user of the coal, it may have been utilised. However, the distance and difficulty in getting it mean that once again it is not economically profitable.
Iron ore is widespread in surface rocks in Antarctica and has been traced deep under the ice. Once again however the fact that it is isolated in Antarctica means that it is not worth getting. In addition, it contains only about 35% iron against other regions outside Antarctica where ores that are less than 60% are considered to not be worth mining as it is so little. With exposed rock estimated to form less than one-half of 1% of Antarctica’s land area, the probability is practically non-existent that a potential ore body would be exposed. Moreover, whereas generations of prospectors have combed temperate and even Arctic mountains, it was mostly reconnaissance parties on scientific missions who visited Antarctic mountains. The Dufek Massif in East Antarctica has been identified as a possible source of chromium, but only theoretically (since no-one has actually seen it). Chromium ores are also plentiful elsewhere on earth even if not currently exploited. Again, because of the high costs of polar operations, few conceivable resources – excepting those with high unit value such as platinum, gold, and perhaps diamonds – have any likelihood for exploitation. Currently, those overwhelming practical difficulties and costs of extraction mean that Antarctica is not under immediate threat from mineral exploitation of its land.
Offshore resources of petroleum are a different matter. The finding of gaseous hydrocarbons in cores drilled in the Ross Sea by the Glomar Challenger in 1973 aroused considerable international interest. Since the late 1970s, oceanographic research ships of many nations, including France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, have undertaken detailed studies of the structure of the continental margin: using sophisticated geophysical techniques of seismic reflection, gravity and magnetic surveys. Thicknesses of sedimentary rock needed for sizable petroleum accumulations may occur in continental-margin areas of the Ross, Amundsen, Bellingshausen, Weddell seas, perhaps near the Amery Ice Shelf, and some may also exist in inland basins covered by continental ice. Though it seems unlikely that fields of a size needed for exploitation are present.
If found, any petroleum extraction would be difficult in the offshore areas, as while technologies have been developed for drilling for and recovering petroleum in Arctic regions, iceberg drift and moving ice packs would affect drill ships and platforms more severely than in the Arctic. Icebergs are far larger in the south pole and have deeper keels; they scour the seafloor at deeper levels and would be more likely to damage seafloor installations such as wellheads, pipelines, and mooring systems. These problems, though great, are far fewer than those that would be encountered in developing inland mineral resources of any kind. Reliable authorities have estimated that it would cost over US$100 per barrel to get oil from Antarctica. Even if accidentally found through scientific studies, mineral resources cannot currently be commercially explored or exploited under the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Hear Professor Roger Bradbury in the video below, as he links all the south pole issues together.
- The report on Antarctica starts at 2:25 and ends at 11:05: The History Hour | Saving Antarctica