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Antarctica: What's the big deal over resource exploitation?

October 20, 2023

Russia and China are blocking efforts to protect more of Antarctica's icy wilderness. With abundant fish and krill, and potential energy reserves, why is it so important to protect the South Pole?

Adult gentoo penguin leaping into tide pool at Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Melting sea ice has made it more difficult for penguins to breed and forageImage: Michael Nolan/robertharding/picture alliance

The planet is getting warmer, and nowhere is this felt more than at the poles. Recent research has shown that Antarctica, at the bottom of the world, is warming at around twice the global average.

Higher average temperatures and polar heat waves are warming the seas around the southern polar region, melting ice, freshening the salt water and changing habitats. Retreating ice is making it easier for fishers to harvest Antarctica's bountiful marine life, a potential source of food for many.

The Southern Ocean is teeming with a variety of meaty fish and krill, a tiny crustacean that looks like a prawn or lobster. Russia, China and other top fishing nations send boats down south every year in search of Antarctic toothfish, which is found on the menus of high-end restaurants around the world — though usually listed as the more palatable Chilean sea bass.

Krill, meanwhile, is increasingly used in dietary supplements and to flavor other foods. It's also important in fish farming. In 2022, boats hauled away some 415,508 tons of krill — at least, that's what was officially reported.

Fish is delicious, but is there anything else?

Antarctica may also hold hidden minerals and energy sources that could help us make the transition to renewable energy, including fossil gas. Mining has been banned in Antarctica since the late 1990s, though the ban could theoretically be up for review in 2048.

"The Ross Sea is one of the most likely sites for hydrocarbons in the Southern Ocean. Researchers estimate that there are 500 billion tons of oil on the Antarctic continent and 300 to 500 billion tons of natural gas, plus a potential 135 billion tons of oil in the Southern Ocean," wrote polar politics expert Anne-Marie Brady in a 2019 paper for The Australian Civil-Military Centre, a government agency.

A rainbow arcs over an iceberg off the coast of South Georgia, Antarctica
While 'beautiful,' researchers say rainbows in the Antarctic sky mean there's been an increase in liquid water in the atmosphere Image: A.Rouse/WILDLIFE/picture alliance

The frozen hills also hold coal, diamonds, gold and other precious metals — along with more than two-thirds of the world's fresh water, to some, the most valuable resource of all.

"For many Antarctic states, Antarctica is a 'treasure house' of resources, just waiting to be exploited," said Brady.

So, what's the problem — isn't Antarctica already protected?

Yes, of course — international efforts to secure the continent's land ecosystems go back to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which has now been signed by 56 countries. And a 1998 environmental protocol designated "Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science."

But the treaty doesn't cover marine life. That's handled by a related authority, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR for short.

The CCAMLR, which also controls fishing in the Antarctic region, has since created two marine protected areas to preserve fragile ecosystems in around 5% of the Southern Ocean. A 94,000-square-kilometer zone off the South Orkney Islands, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, was formed in 2009, followed by another area in the Ross Sea, a large bay southwest of New Zealand. Fishing is prohibited in these regions, with a few exceptions for research.

The Ross Sea zone, set up in 2016, covers some 2 million square kilometers (about 806,000 square miles), almost six times the size of Germany. One-and-a-half the size of the planet's largest national park, it's the world's biggest marine protected area — and it's a lively place.

Nancy Bertler, director of New Zealand's Antarctic Science Platform, told DW that the area is home to "30% of the world's Adelie penguins, 25% of all Emperor penguins, 30% of Antarctic petrels and [around] 50% of Ross Sea killer whales, and 50% of South Pacific Weddell seals."

With the oceans facing increasing environmental stresses like climate change and pollution, Bertler said marine protected areas help to monitor and manage species like krill and "play a critical role in providing added protection to increase the resilience of ecosystems."

Krill is everywhere — why do they need added protection?

Krill may only be a few centimeters long, but taken together they're among the most abundant species on the planet.

In Antarctica, they cluster in schools around sea ice for shelter and food, scraping algae from the underside of ice floes. In some places, the sheer number of krill crammed together can color the water reddish-brown.

But Antarctic krill can only survive in a narrow temperature range, and warming waters — and less ice — doesn't do them any favors. And they're not the only ones feeling the heat.

A researcher holds a handful of reddish krill, lifting them up from a container filled with more krill
The market for krill has grown in recent years, especially in AsiaImage: British Antarctic Survey/picture-alliance/dpa

"We do know that krill, a critical species in the food web, has been moving southward, that seabirds and mammals have experienced both population declines and increases, that their range has shifted with yet mainly unknown consequences," said Bertler.

Bertler added that Antarctica has an "extraordinarily high" number of unique species that have adapted to the extreme environment, meaning there aren't many other places they can go for refuge.

"We have yet to understand the impact of these changes on the ecosystem and how to prepare for future climate change surprises undoubtedly on the horizon," she added.

Can't we just expand the protected areas?

Scientists, campaigners and CCAMLR delegates are meeting until October 27 in Hobart, Australia, trying to do just that. They want to create three new marine protected areas off the coast of East Antarctica, around the Antarctic Peninsula and in the Weddell Sea, south of the Atlantic Ocean.

Antarctic glaciers melting faster than ever

These sanctuaries would help protect an additional 4 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the European Union. But not everyone wants these new nature preserves. Russia and China have blocked any progress since 2016, arguing that existing restrictions are plenty.

"How to balance Antarctic environmental protection and resource development is still an urgent problem facing the Antarctic Treaty System," wrote Nong Hong, the Maritime Affairs Program head at the Institute for China-America Studies, in April 2023. "The focus should be on finding a balance between conservation and sustainable use rather than simply prohibiting or restricting the use of the ocean."

Russia and China aren't Antarctic nations, but both have research stations on the continent along with the US, India, Australia, Germany and around 40 other states.

China has begun expanding its facilities in recent years, and these "growing contributions to Antarctic science may pave the way for China to have a greater say in the future governance of the region [… and] an opportunity to shape future rules around mineral resource," said the US-based Center for Strategic & International Studies in April 2023.

An elephant seal basks on a beach, surrounded by photographers
Tourism has also taken off in Antarctica, adding to concerns over the impact of human activity in the regionImage: S.Muller/WILDLIFE/picture alliance

Bertler, who has seen "unexpected, staggering changes in the physical environment" since she began working in Antarctica in 1999, said the new protection areas would help build up a network to "protect ecosystems and their biodiversity in an ever more vulnerable future, impacted by overfishing, pollution, and climate change."

Ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and China and the West as well as concerns over potential militarization in the polar regions have only made Antarctic protection more complicated.

Bertler said these tensions "unnecessarily delay important action and distract from the discussions we should have — discussions that are focused on the best science with the best outcome for the ecosystem and hence humanity in mind," she said.

"The existence of CCAMLR and the Antarctic Treaty are remarkable and precious," she added. "We need to do everything in our power to retain these fragile and important frameworks because the alternative is unthinkable."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues