The Last Place on Earth

Antarctica has been in the news quite a lot recently.  We have just passed the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s and Scott’s attainment of the south pole.  Al Gore recently traveled to the continent as part of his Climate Reality Project.  And, most interestingly, Russian scientists finally pierced the 3.8-km-thick ice shield to penetrate the surface of Lake Vostok.  The project hopes to identify an ecosystem in a lake that has been isolated from the remainder of the planet by the Antarctic ice for some 15 million years.

There are any number of ideas floating around amidst the excitement, mostly centering on the potential for information obtained from Lake Vostok to inform us about patterns of evolution on our own planet and to provide further insight into the possibility that life could evolve on planets or moons having similar conditions.  The Jovian moon Europa, for instance, has an icy crust with a liquid ocean underneath that some astrobiologists have speculated could support life.

Work in Antarctica is highly seasonal, and with the current season now coming to an end, actual collection of water and sediment samples (perhaps using an underwater robot) will not be performed until the Antarctic summer of 2012 – 13.  The Russian research is also likely to be complemented by projects planned for that season by British and American scientists.  The British Antarctic Survey plans to cut through the icecap into Lake Ellsworth while the Americans plan to investigate Lake Whillans.

There is undoubtedly an element of competition among the Russian, British, and American teams that is perhaps reminiscent of the “race for the south pole” between the Norwegian and British teams led by Amundsen and Scott a century ago.  But at the same time, Antarctica is a place where it is easier to set aside national chauvinism in favor of an idealized cooperative approach to science undertaken by a singular humanity.  It is within this context that I want to discuss a question that has a superficially simple answer.

Who owns Lake Vostok?
The easy answer of “no one” is perhaps the answer most commonly given because no national territorial claims are enforced in Antarctica.  But a fuller answer is more complex.  While it is true that no national territorial claims are enforced, that does not mean such claims do not exist.  Indeed, during the early part of the twentieth century, seven nations asserted territorial claims, some of which overlap:  Chile, Argentina, France, Norway, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia.  Those claims still exist but have been “frozen” in accordance with a series of agreements that are collectively known as the “Antarctic Treaty System” (who says treaty makers do not have a sense of humor?).

The initial Antarctic Treaty went into effect in June, 1961 and included the United States and the Soviet Union in addition to the seven claimant nations, as well as Belgium, Japan, and South Africa.  While not claimant nations, the United States and the Soviet Union were given special status in Article IV of the treaty as reserving the right to make territorial claims in the future; nations that have subsequently ratified the treaty have agreed not to advance any claims of their own.

All of this continues to be relevant because Antarctica has importance that goes beyond its scientific value.  Fifty percent larger than all of Europe, Antarctica is believed to contain vast stores of mineral resources and — importantly — oil.  The original Antarctic Treaty said nothing about how to treat discoveries of such resources, but the Madrid Protocol, negotiated in 1991, places a 50-year moratorium on mining and oil-exploitation activities in the Antarctic.  That moratorium may be lifted earlier than the 50-year term if there is agreement among certain parties to the treaty.

The original territorial claims, which date back to Britain’s first claim in 1908, were based on traditional legal rationales for asserting sovereignty, including discovery, occupation, geographical proximity, and geographical affinity theories.  Since those territorial claims are merely “frozen” by the Antarctic Treaty System, many of the activities that take place in the Antarctic need to be viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye.  There is no doubt that the scientific research that takes place is valid and important, but much of the national support of that research is funded with a greater objective of continuing to consolidate territorial claims.

Consider, for example, Emilio Marcos Palma, the first human being born on the continent of Antarctica.  An Argentine national, Palma’s birth was coordinated through the efforts of the Argentinean government as a form of colonization of the territory it claims.  He was born January 7, 1978, and eight years later, the Chilean government followed suit, arranging for the birth of Juan Pablo Camacho in Antarctica.  Both men were born in a part of the continent that is simultaneously claimed by each of Argentina, Chile, and Great Britain.  When I visited Antarctica last month, one of the residents of the British base at Port Lockroy explained to me, with characteristically wry British wit, “The Chilean and Argentinean governments each sent down a pregnant woman to have a baby.  But we Brits … we opened a post office!”  And indeed, the British do operate a post office out of Port Lockroy in that area.  Their greater motivation is almost certainly part of a plan to solidify their “frozen” territorial claim than out of a genuine need to provide postal services — which are almost entirely used by tourists to send postcards to friends and family.

The author enjoying one of his pastimes in Antarctica

Consider also that the United States operates a base at the South Pole (that also provides a post office), simultaneously straddling the territories of six of the seven claimant nations.  It also operates McMurdo Base between the Ross Sea and the Ross Ice Shelf; that base is a veritable small town, having a population of about 1000 in the summer months.  There is no doubt that a consideration in operating these bases is to establish a pattern of colonization that may serve for a future territorial claim by the United States in accordance with its reserved right under the Antarctic Treaty.

The presence of Russian bases in Antarctica is surely no different, and this fact has not escaped the attention of Australia.  Lake Vostok lies within the territory to which Australia has frozen claims, an area that encompasses about 42% of the Antarctic continent and that is almost the size of the Australian continent itself.  (How Australian does “Vostok” really sound, eh, mate?)  About six months ago, the Lowy Institute, a private Australian think tank, raised concerns about Australia’s ability to preserve its territorial claim, and suggested examining the possibility of involving military personnel in its Antarctic activities.  A copy of the paper can be read here.  The suggestion of involving the Australian military is delicate because of limitations imposed by the Antarctic Treaty (naval activity on the high seas is generally permissible but military activity on land or ice shelves is prohibited).

The Antarctic is one of few truly pristine parts of the planet remaining, and it encompasses a satisfyingly large part of the world.  Many idealistically wish that it will always remain so, and the romantic notion that it might has so far been possible because of its extreme inhospitality to human beings.  Lake Vostok, for instance, is near the southern “Pole of Cold,” which boasts the lowest temperatures on the planet, having once recorded a temperature as low as –89.2ºC (–128.6ºF).  But it is unrealistic to believe it will always remain so as technology continues to evolve and the resources that it houses become more potentially accessible and valuable to nations.  The frozen territorial claims are like a bear in hibernation — quiet, peaceful, and slumbering — but spring always eventually comes.

About Patrick Boucher

The author, Patrick M. Boucher, is a patent attorney living near Denver, Colorado and working at Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle. He holds a Ph.D. in physics as well as a J.D. He is an active member of the American Physical Society, and is admitted to practice law in the states of Colorado and New York, as well as to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is also a member of the Authors Guild and of the Colorado Authors League.