Antarctica will remain completely off limits for mining in the future. That was the unanimous decision reached on Wednesday by all 29 nations party to the Antarctic Treaty, the main international governing mechanism for the continent. The resolution, lauded by NGOs, dispels any doubts or false rumors that the status quo might change after 2048. The treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection does not expire that year; it can only be requested to be reviewed. But with such a strong commitment by all signatories, the continent will remain protected from disruptive natural resource extraction.
The Protocol requires strict rules and procedures for the conduct of activities in the Antarctic. Prior to its signing in 1991, Antarctic Treaty Parties had negotiated an agreement regulating mining in the continent. However, that controversial pact never entered into force. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) of environmental NGOs campaigned for years for a “World Park Antarctica,” and Australia and France led the opposition to the mining agreement. And so, after 25 years of Antarctic mining being prohibited, now all Treaty countries support the ban.
However, the other looming anthropogenic threat of climate change is another story. Climate models show that the Antarctic is warming slower than the Arctic, due to ocean currents pushing warmer water north, but even a drawn-out melting of Antarctica’s ice fields would raise sea levels by several feet.
With information indicating that the impact of climate change and ocean acidification is already having an impact on Antarctica and its ecosystems, the Antarctic Treaty System has become increasingly focused on developing ways to monitor and respond to climate change, wrote Maritime Executive. For example, a joint workshop held with the Scientific Committee of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources acknowledged the importance of marine and terrestrial protected areas as reference areas that can increase understanding of climate change impacts.
Tourism to Antarctica was also discussed at the 39th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, before it becomes a problem. Tourism numbers are projected to hit a record high in the coming year, and ASOC believes this will require an additional response from Antarctic Treaty Parties to ensure that this activity has a minimal footprint on the fragile Antarctic environment. “Parties are developing a strategic vision for tourism, but there are key actions that should be taken now, such as prohibiting the development of land-based infrastructure, to preserve the unique values of the Antarctic region,” said Ricardo Roura, ASOC’s tourism expert.
Still, the unanimously-supported ban on Antarctic mining is a big relief. It means that a scramble for the continent’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources is not in the cards, even after 2048. Antarctica’s fish stocks are a separate issue for now, but sooner or later global pressure to protect them will clash with the need to feed the world’s growing population. The icy continent’s future is still far from settled.