UK & World News
Scramble For Arctic Resources 'Bad' For South
An increase in mineral and oil exploration in the Arctic north could prove ominous for the future preservation of the southern polar region of Antarctica, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Antarctica is currently protected by an international agreement that bans mining and drilling, but also by nature - its remoteness and extreme weather conditions mean that it would be extremely expensive and risky to mount any significant commercial exploration.
However, Rob Downey, Antarctica expert for the WWF, has told Sky News that he fears increased mineral extraction activities in the Arctic could lead to the development of new technologies that would make exploitation of Antarctica's natural resources more achievable.
He said: "What really concerns me is that because of this Wild West style scramble for Arctic resources, we might see developing technology, developing operational procedures and that combined with the reckless attitude to risk and towards insurance by the oil and gas industry, doesn't set a good precedent for Antarctica."
The race for the wealth of natural resources in the northern polar region has been steadily building for many years, and has been made all the more intense as a result of the likelihood that new shipping routes will soon be available due to melting Arctic ice.
The US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark are all currently seeking to claim areas of the Arctic and major international energy firms such as Statoil and ConocoPhilips are also manoeuvring to secure high-value off-shore projects.
Russia made an attempt to claim nearly half a million square miles of the Arctic ice shelf through a claim to the United Nations in 2001.
That effort failed, but there are indications that President Vladimir Putin will make a renewed attempt later this year.
However, even if new technologies are developed to enable commercial mineral extraction in the Arctic, there remain significant legal safeguards in place for Antarctica.
The Antarctic Treaty, which is signed by 50 countries, designates Antarctica as a neutral region that must be preserved for peaceful scientific research.
The Environmental Protocols within the Treaty have placed a 50-year moratorium on all mining and drilling in the continent.
That moratorium can begin to be reviewed and potentially removed from 2041.
According to Rachel Clarke, an adviser to the UK Government on Antarctica issues, it would take a major shift in international attitudes for the legal protections to come under threat.
She said: "Obviously if the ban on mining were to be lifted all the Treaty parties would have to agree to that and I don't think that's particularly likely. If there was a change proposed after the 2041 or 48 date, again there would have to be consensus from a large number of the treaty parties, it would not be an immediate threat from one so-called rogue party that might want to go and do mining or mineral exploration on their own."
However, Antarctica is known to hold significant mineral reserves, such as iron ore and coal, and scientists expect there may well be natural gas and oil also lying beneath the ice.
For British polar explorer Robert Swan, that is enough to warrant concerns about the future of the moratorium.
Mr Swan is currently leading an expedition to Antarctica with 80 young people from 28 different nations.
His aim is to persuade what he describes as 'decision-makers of the future' to do all they can to ensure the Antarctic Treaty and its environmental protocols remain in place.
"2041 is the year that the Treaty that protects Antarctica can start to be changed, can start to be reviewed - and I think the year 2041, for that reason, is a powerful symbol. 28 years from now, if we are stupid enough we could destroy the last great wilderness on earth," said Mr Swan.
But there are those that say the decision on whether or not to renew the drilling and mining moratorium is not so simple.
Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, told Sky News he believed policy makers should approach the question of the moratorium from a more pragmatic stand point.
He said: "Having a moratorium in beautiful, unique places like Antarctica sounds like a good idea, but likewise Wales is beautiful and unique - why don't we have a moratorium there?
"Why don't we have a moratorium everywhere? Because we recognise that we don't just want beautiful unique places, but we also need food to have energy to be able to run the world to make it possible to allow most people to live like you and I do."
"Let's be honest and talk about how much it would cost us to have some mining in Antarctica. That would be a bad thing in the sense of destroying the uniqueness, but at the same time that it would also have a lot of benefits, and we have to be honest and weigh those up against each other", Mr Lomborg added.
Sky News is travelling with the 10th International Antarctic Expedition led by Mr Swan.