Thursday, December 31, 2015

Antarctica: The Future

Appropriate for a New Year's Eve is yesterday's frontpager, "Countries Rush for Upper Hand in Antarctica," by spooky Simon Romero, the Gray Lady's Brazil bureau chief and scold of any and all Latin American movement for social justice. As one would expect from Romero, he paints a word picture of a Cold Waresque land grab underway for the resource rich territory at the bottom of the world:
More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics.
Some of the ventures focus on the Antarctic resources that are already up for grabs, like abundant sea life. China and South Korea, both of which operate state-of-the-art bases here, are ramping up their fishing of krill, the shrimplike crustaceans found in abundance in the Southern Ocean, while Russia recently thwarted efforts to create one of the world’s largest ocean sanctuaries here.

Some scientists are examining the potential for harvesting icebergs from Antarctica, which is estimated to have the biggest reserves of fresh water on the planet. Nations are also pressing ahead with space research and satellite projects to expand their global navigation abilities.

Building on a Soviet-era foothold, Russia is expanding its monitoring stations for Glonass, its version of the Global Positioning System. At least three Russian stations are already operating in Antarctica, part of its effort to challenge the dominance of the American GPS, and new stations are planned for sites like the Russian base, in the shadow of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.

Elsewhere in Antarctica, Russian researchers boast of their recent discovery of a freshwater reserve the size of Lake Ontario after drilling through miles of solid ice.

“You can see that we’re here to stay,” said Vladimir Cheberdak, 57, chief of the Bellingshausen Station, as he sipped tea under a portrait of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, an officer and later admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy who explored the Antarctic coast in 1820.
It goes on like that -- you know, the ruthless and acquisitive Russians and Chinese -- before the reader nears the end of the piece to discover -- lo and behold! -- that the gentle U.S. giant is actually by far the largest squatter on Antarctica:
As some countries expand operations in Antarctica, the United States maintains three year-round stations on the continent with more than 1,000 people during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, including those at the Amundsen-Scott station, built in 1956 at an elevation of 9,301 feet on a plateau at the South Pole. But American researchers quietly grumble about budget restraints and having far fewer icebreakers than Russia, limiting the reach of the United States in Antarctica.
This incessant good-guy-vs.-bad-guy division makes reading the daily news tiresome; it is part of my motivation for posting occasionally on comic books. The point I want to make is that there is not that much difference between the media; in fact, I would argue that depictions of good vs. evil are on average much richer and more complex in comic books than in the prestige press.

The reason why Romero's feature on Antarctica is appropriate for New Year's Eve is because it is about the future -- future mineral wealth, fish stocks, fresh water, energy resources. The continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, the part of which banning mining comes up for review in 2048:
Antarctica’s mineral, oil and gas wealth are a longer-term prize. The treaty banning mining here, shielding coveted reserves of iron ore, coal and chromium, is expected to come up for review by 2048 and could be challenged before then. Researchers recently found kimberlite deposits hinting at the existence of diamonds. And while assessments vary widely, geologists estimate that Antarctica holds at least 36 billion barrels of oil and natural gas.
I have been accumulating a stockpile of books on Antarctica since I was in my twenties when I read Edgar Allan Poe's tremendous novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which speculates that Antarctica (the book was written prior to the exploration of the South Pole) was populated by black people. At the end of the book Pym confronts a godlike white figure before disappearing in a rent in fabric of the Earth.

Another great novel where Antarctica plays a role is Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach (1992), a fictional retelling of Donald Crowhurst's doomed and falsified single-hand, round-the-world yacht race. Antarctica is about the unknown and the unknowable, and so too is the future.

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