The Battle for Antarctica

Failure to stem climate change could have dramatic consequences for the continent

You might think that of all the seven continents, Antarctica stands the best chance of surviving environmental destruction at the hands of mankind. The ice-covered expanse within the Antarctic Circle is a virgin terrain with no indigenous peoples; compare that to Asia, the largest continent in area, whose population has surpassed four billion.

But in Antarctica: Battle for the Seventh Continent, author Doaa Abdel-Motaal debunks our romantic perceptions of Antarctica as a pristine land of monochromatic vistas, frigid weather, and South Pole explorers. As she tells the story, Antarctica is already being overrun by commercial fishing and touristic excursions, and is gravely threatened by a coming geopolitical scramble for its valuable mineral resources and large-scale human habitation. “As Antarctica becomes more livable because of climate change, much of the world will become more difficult to inhabit,” says Abdel-Motaal. “Today we are standing before a major mass migration, and we have to prepare ourselves for that.”

Antarctica traces the battle for the continent to the first half of the twentieth century, when seven nations—Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France, and the United Kingdom—laid territorial claims. Negotiations initiated by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower led to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, a landmark for international peace that demilitarized the continent and designated it a scientific preserve. Since then, there has been a steady rise in human activity: research stations staffed by about 4,000 scientists and technicians dot the landscape, and Argentina and Chile have established experimental human settlements.

Abdel-Motaal says that many of the research stations are conducting “incredible scientific work” but others are there “to plant the national flag” for the possible future extraction of Antarctica’s petroleum, gold, and diamond deposits. The fifty-three parties to the Antarctic Treaty began discussing mineral exploitation in 1981, and the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) was adopted in 1988. The convention later collapsed following intense pressure from environmental groups including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, as well as non-party states who wanted to turn the continent into a “World Park.” The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which bans all mineral resource activities except scientific research until 2048, was established in 1991. Abdel-Motaal insists we must think ahead: “When 2048 comes around and countries start to express an interest in mining the continent and exploiting the economic resources, we had better have a plan otherwise this thing may descend into chaos.”

Abdel-Motaal argues that Antarctica, a land mass larger than Europe, has the weakest environmental protection regulations of all the continents. Only 1.5 percent of Antarctica’s land mass has been set aside as protected conservation areas, far less than the 17 percent recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Abdel-Motaal points to commercial fishing and tourism as economic activities already depleting fish stocks and degrading the landscape due to the lack of sufficient regulations. With the distant continent increasingly accessible, these issues will only grow.

The gravest threat to Antarctica, Abdel-Motaal says, is climate change that is melting the continent’s ice layer. Having registered the lowest temperature ever recorded in 1983—nearly minus 89 degrees centigrade—last year a record warm temperature of 14.8 degrees centigrade was hit. “We don’t know and we can’t tell whether the temperature rise that we’re seeing in the Antarctic peninsula is due to natural climate variability or man-made global warming,” explains Abdel-Motaal. “However, what is clear and what cannot be contested is the fact that the temperature is rising.” The precise reasons for rising temperatures are difficult to measure, particularly in Antarctica, where a large hole in the ozone layer must also be taken into consideration. Abdel-Motaal says that if the entire west Antarctic ice shelf melts, it could lead to a four- to six-meter rise in the global sea level with catastrophic consequences such as the destruction of ecosystems and flooding of entire regions.

Abdel-Motaal supports the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The accord pledges to control the rate of average global temperature rise, decrease damaging effects of climate change, promote development of technology with low greenhouse gas emissions, and provide economic incentives to help realize these goals. Abdel-Motaal argues that failure to stem climate change could have dramatic consequences for Antarctica itself, too: besides destroying the continent’s ice layer, it could spur large-scale human migration to the continent and accelerate a race to exploit mineral resources. “Forces are coming together that are likely to renew the battle for Antarctica,” she warns. Abdel-Motaal believes there is a misconception that the Antarctic Treaty brought peace, when in fact rapidly changing global dynamics will soon leave the continent exceptionally vulnerable.

Abdel-Motaal, a former deputy chief of staff at the World Trade Organization who holds a master’s degree in sociology from the American University in Cairo, offers a proposal to bring order to Antarctica’s future. It is based on the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which granted Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean and also granted treaty signatories rights to mineral resources and commercial fishing. Abdel-Motaal proposes that Antarctica be divided along similar lines among Antarctic Treaty signatories into sovereign territories, which could in turn enforce stricter environmental protection regulations. “There is nothing worse for the environment than to have a no man’s land,” Abdel-Motaal says. The ultimate aim, she adds, is equity in utilizing earth’s last frontier: “The resources of the continent are part of the common heritage of mankind and nobody should be allowed to monopolize them.”