The Icy Scramble

Part 4 of a series: Geopolitical Jabber


By Jose Davila IV


For more than half a century, the Antarctic Treaty System has achieved widespread peace and scientific cooperation in Antarctica. Yet, it faces unprecedented strain due to climate change, economic activity, and the emergence of new global powers.

12 countries, including the United States, the USSR, and the UK, with competing claims in the Antarctic negotiated the Antarctic Treaty in the heat of the Cold War. It was the first disarmament treaty to be ratified during that time period. At first, the treaty barred the use of militaries on the continent and called for no enforcement of territorial claims. Later, further stipulations restricted fishing in the Southern Ocean, regulated tourism on the landmass, and banned mining until at least 2048 when that specific portion of the treaty would be up for renewal. Since the first collective negotiation, the number of signatories has risen from 12 to 53, now including new powers India, South Korea, and China.

Yet, changing conditions on the continent have not been fully addressed by the Treaty System and its signatories. The group’s meeting last May in Buenos Aires only solved the smallest issues faced by the body. For example, the member states approved new guidelines for the preservation of historic sites, like Ernest Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds, and rules for drone use over the continent. There was no discussion of penalties for those that decide to break the accords in pursuit of economic or political gain. A collective lethargy seems to hover any large-scale decision regarding the use (or lack thereof) of Antarctica’s resources.

Climate change poses a sizable threat not only to the wildlife of Antarctica, but to the Treaty System as well. More countries have been building research stations on the continent in hopes of understanding how climate change continues to affect the polar regions. Such scientific outposts have long been proxies for military bases under the limits of the Treaty. India opened its second fully operational science station, Bharati, in Australian-claimed land in 2015. South Korea completed the Jang Bogo Station in Terra Nova Bay within the Ross Dependency, claimed by New Zealand, in 2014. Currently, the Chinese government is building its fifth research station on Inexpressible Island in Terra Nova Bay. It is expected to be completed by 2020.

The Ross Dependency will be one area to watch on the continent as more countries pump money and resources towards it. Already, the new Chinese base, and to a lesser extent Jang Bogo and Italy’s new hard rock runway, is seen as a rival to the largest Antarctic station, the Americans’ McMurdo Station, and New Zealand’s Scott Base in the region. Such proximity could prove to be an issue due to contrasting values and Antarctic strategies present, as evidenced by China’s proposal for a special code of conduct around its Kunlun Station in East Antarctica. If China was to actually implement such a code around Kunlun or its new Inexpressible base, it seems unlikely that any other nation would respect those rules if they differed from standard Antarctic law. These five nations founded bases there in order to access the Ross Ice Shelf, a vitally important space for the study of the Antarctic ice cap, as well as the Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA), a newly established (much to the chagrin of China) reserve for marine life in the Ross Sea.

The Ross MPA, along with the nearby Krill Research Zone, were created to protect marine life and give ample room for scientific study in the Southern Ocean with an eye towards limiting Russia’s and China’s angling for fishing grounds newly opened by the warming effects of climate change . Fishing and tourism represent the chief current economic uses of Antarctica and its surrounding waters. New fisheries are emerging as sea ice melts around the continent, and so are new players in the global seafood trade. China, Russia, and South Korea have been exploiting the southern seas for krill. China and Russia, especially, take the view that the Antarctic is a region to be utilized for its resources, not conserved. Such policy worries scientists and environmentalists as the current prohibition on mining runs out in 2048 and obviously, some countries may want to open Antarctica for business in that sector.

Antarctica was always political and so were the governments that funded research there. The same can be said for the Arctic and outer space, similarly ungovernable spaces where countries may now fight for available resources as conditions change. Now, a new Antarctic Treaty may be necessary, but many countries do not have a guiding polar policy, so the status quo seems likely to continue until a shock occurs. Let’s hope the icy relations between the competing powers in Antarctica thaw just enough for a renegotiation of the Treaty.


Jose is a first-year in Morse College. You can contact him at