As I prepare for another season of working in Antarctica with the tourism industry it is hard not to reflect on how accessible this most remote of continents has become. No need to pack the ponies or push the pack of huskies onto the ship anymore, getting to Antarctica is relatively straight-forward these days. As a tourist you can choose from several companies offering trips in the Antarctic Peninsula and even beyond – you can even choose the level of luxurious add-ons that will make your trip more comfortable. And as a scientist, the days of ship-born visitation are fading … most national operators now adopt fly-in programs to open up the continent to science.
The isolation of Antarctica is being gradually eroded by human ingenuity – and now opportunities exist for people across the globe to view one of the most pristine and remote environments on the planet. However, easy access to Antarctica also means that the resources of the frozen continent are tantalizingly close. Several nations have recently made subtle changes to their goals regarding Antarctica (http://www.worldcrunch.com/led-russia-quiet-rush-may-be-antarcticas-resources/3999), and Russia has made it quite clear that the resources of Antarctica should be accurately assessed with a view towards future extraction (http://theconversation.edu.au/antarctic-visions-what-is-the-future-of-australias-forgotten-territory-2799).
Antarctica has long been heralded as a reserve for peace and science. This is one of the few places on Earth where big business and industry are forgotten, where scientists and intrepid adventurers are able to sidestep the demands of modern society to observe wilderness in its most untouched form. To look “the wild” in the eye and see ourselves reflected there is something that changes a person’s perspective on the world and for many, leaves us with a drive to protect the last remaining wild places on the planet from the implacable advance of industry.
For me, the idea of opening up Antarctica to mineral exploitation is an indication of avarice winning out over common sense. Various political agreements make Antarctica a very special place in regards to politics – the continent (and its natural resources) is protected by international agreement that make it a showcase of cooperation in the interest of science, the environment and world peace. As the world reaches a population on 7 billion (http://7billionactions.org), everyone recognises the need to make sustainable decisions to safeguard the planet for future generations … digging up the non-renewable resources from the last untouched corners of the globe seems a very short sighted solution to ensuring our collective future.
Dredging the “undiscovered” oil from the Arctic has been justified in the interest of national security and the economy of the Nations fringing the Arctic Ocean – what could possibly be the justification for flinging away 50 years of conservation, peace and science in the Antarctic to blunt our avarice on the frozen rocks of the icy continent?