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Race for Antarctica gathers pace

Last summer diplomatic tensions rose over the question of the Arctic, when Russia was criticised for making a claim to ocean territory, Canada, the U.S., Denmark and Norway followed up with their own suits. Now it’s the Antarctic that has emerged as the l

Since the Golden Age of its Empire the UK hasn’t claimed such a vast area of land. While the British Empire may be long gone, the country is now planning to lay claim to huge tracts of the Antarctic. The Foreign Office is pushing the UN to recognise that a one million square kilometre area of the seabed in the South Atlantic is British.

“The UK is considering submitting five claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) for the extension of the continental shelf to ensure that we safeguard our future options before the right to do so expires in May 2009. If we don't submit our claim by that deadline, we’ll have lost the right to do so in the future,” the Foreign Office says.

What is the reason for the sudden interest? The area is thought to contain lucrative reserves of oil and natural gas, although under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty the search for these reserves cannot begin until 2048. 

Article 76 of the UN convention on the Law of the Sea says that if a country can prove that the continental shelf extends out into the seas, it can claim mineral rights within a maximum of 350 nautical miles. This is precisely what Britain is preparing to do in Antarctica. The news has raised the spectre of a battle over the southern polar region, which is disputed in part by both Chile and Argentina.

Chile staked a claim with the UN Commission on October 22. Argentina has also signalled its intention to make a claim, which is expected to include territory surrounding the British-owned Falkland Islands.

“The United Kingdom now has its own territory in the South Atlantic. From the legal standpoint, the UK can’t do much. Actually the spokesman for the British Government said that this is just a claim for the distant future,” Mark Rikhlin, an international law expert believes. 

However, now governments are rushing to claim land and, through the Arctic and Antarctic, seeking to boost their dwindling energy resources. What was once seen as a harsh, barren and inhospitable wilderness is being sliced up like a piece of ice cake.

“So few people have been there. The environment is so very different from anything else that you would experience anywhere else on the planet,” polar explorer Pen Hadow explains. 

Next spring Pen Hadow is leading a 120-day expedition to measure for the first time the thickness of the North Polar ice cap. His main concern is the ecosystem. The Arctic, Pen Hadow says, could collapse within his lifetime. And Antarctica could be next!

“Here we are laying claim to more and more oil and gas, which is going to result in more and more greenhouse gas emission and more and more global warming – and there is something wrong with it – everyone knows somewhere deep inside that it’s not quite right but the process of laying claim and just exploiting the resources just goes on,” he stresses.

Although there is still no technology for oil exploration at such depths, it's just a matter of time.