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1/ What natural resources does Antarctica have?

A/ Mineral Resources

Most minerals in Antarctica are buried beneath the iceIt is difficult to tell accurately what mineral resources Antarctica has (rock, metal, oil, coal etc.) as they are buried under a thick ice sheet.

It is thought that there are large and valuable mineral deposits under the ice. This is not because anyone has actually seen them, but because of what has been found in samples taken from the small areas of rock that are exposed.

Up until 180 million years ago, Antarctica was attached to South America, the Southern part of Africa, India and Australia in one giant super-continent.

These continents then drifted apart until they reached their current positions. There have been fossils found in Antarctica that have also been found in South America and South Africa, some of the rock formations are similar too. This means that there is a possibility Antarctica may also share some of the mineral wealth of these continents. At the moment though it is mainly guess work.

Coal has been found in large quantities, but not enough of any other mineral that would make mining or recovery of them worthwhile.

Dan turns down the main Antarctic thermostat to stop it from meltingAntarctica is in an ice age, and development of the land mass in the future is unlikely.

There may be oil and natural gas around Antarctica under the seas that surround it, but these have not been properly investigated and none is being drilled for or pumped out at the moment.

Mining or otherwise getting materials from Antarctica would be very difficult:

come on baby light my fireIt is very remotely isolated from any town, city or industrial development.

Antarctica has the most extreme cold on the planet.

There is a very thick ice sheet (km thick over most of the continent).

It would mean having to cross the roughest seas on the planet to get any cargo back to the industrialized world.

Gigantic icebergs like multi-million tonne ploughs would threaten shipping, platforms and pipelines.

The annual "icing-in" of the continent when the area around the coasts freeze so that only the most powerful (and expensive) ice breakers can get through.

Oil and gas from the continental shelf (shallow sea areas immediately offshore) are the most likely resources that may be exploited, but this is still a good distance in the future. These shelf areas are not covered by the Antarctic Treaty and so are not protected in the same way.


B/ Living Resources

Antarctic krillAntarctica has huge wildlife resources which have been disastrously exploited in the past. Whales and seals in particular.

There are large numbers of ships that go into Antarctic waters to catch fish (the threatened "Patagonian toothfish" is particularly sought after by fishing captains who ignore the fact it is protected) and especially squid.

Squid fishing boats are thought to be starting to pose a threat - particularly in sub Antarctic seas. Squid are food for many Antarctic penguins and seals and a lack of food would have very obvious effects.

The greatest food source in Antarctica is Krill - a small shrimp-like animal that occurs in countless billions all around Antarctic seas. Krill is the basic foodstuff for all kinds of animals from the largest whales to small petrels and fish.

Catching this krill was at one time thought to be a great possible food source for man, though this has not proved to have been the case. The problems being that krill doesn't keep for long and must be processed immediately before it goes off, also consumer reaction has not been good (it doesn't taste very nice in other words).


C/ Tourism

At the present (2013), it seems that the main way Antarctica will be used at least in the near future is for tourism.

Interest in tourism to Antarctica continues to rise. The number of visitors has been increasing since the first tourist trip in the 1960's.

Tourism is confined to cruise ships on 1 to 2 week tours with landings of a few hours usually around the Antarctic Peninsula or islands. There are no tourist facilities as yet built ashore, though visits to existing scientific bases are popular with tourists and base members.

Plans for a hotel and even a casino on Antarctica have been put forward, but they are unlikely to come to anything as things stand currently.

Ironically, possibly, tourism may help to protect Antarctica. It is unlikely that the continent will remain as relatively unvisited and pristine as it has so far. Tourism is seen by many to be the lesser of the available evils.

To succeed as destination attractive to tourists, Antarctica must remain beautiful, untouched, wild and abundant in wildlife.

The tour industry must be regulated to reduce pollution and environmental impact. This presents a problem -  because Antarctica does not come under any one countries control. The regulation is therefore self-regulation and restraint by the tourist industry and the tourists themselves. In other words they have to agree to promise to be good, but not much will happen if they're not.

For further information on the exploitation of Antarctica, see Conservation / Environment links, also below "Who owns Antarctica"

2/ Why is the South Pole colder than the North Pole?

Polar bears only live at the North poleAs well as being at opposite ends of the earth, the two poles are complete opposites in another way.

The North Pole is an area of sea surrounded by land, whereas the South Pole is an area of land surrounded by sea.

The first reason that the North Pole is warmer is because of the sea. Sea water freezes at about -2°C, so whenever sea is not frozen, the temperature of the sea cannot be any lower than this. This has a large effect on the surrounding temperature. Antarctica on the other hand is a large ice-cap with rock underneath it - there is no vast body of relatively warmer water around, so the temperature just drops and drops.

Penguins only live at the South poleThe second reason is due to altitude caused by the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet. The South Pole is 2385m above sea level, the average elevation of Antarctica is 2300m and the highest point is about 4000m. With every 100m you climb, the air temperature drops by 1°C which already puts the average temperature of Antarctica 23°C below the already cold coastal temperature. The North Pole by comparison is at a maximum altitude of just a few metres above sea level - and that's when a large lump of ice is passing by.

The third reason is due to how isolated Antarctica is far from the other landmasses on earth. It is also isolated from the rest of the world's weather in a way that the Arctic isn't. It doesn't get any warm air spilling from nearby continents as does the Arctic from Canada and Russia. Warm air from the tropics can find its way northwards, this is much less likely to happen going south. Antarctica has its own weather systems that rush round and round the continent and have little or nothing to do with the rest of the world.

3/ Who lives in Antarctica?

Tent designs haven't really changed much in a hundred years in AntarcticaAntarctica has no native peoples or people who live their whole lives there.

It was truly the first and only continent that was "discovered" from the outside - every where else in the world that was "discovered" already had plenty of people already living there who knew all about it. No human being had even set eyes on Antarctica before 1820.

Early explorers and then later on, whalers and sealers, were literally the first people to ever see Antarctica.

As the 20th century (1900's) went on, many countries set up permanently manned scientific bases (permanent as in year-round that is not permanent as in for ever). A mixture of scientists and specialist support staff would spend from a few months to a couple of years before handing over to the next party arriving. This pattern has continued to the present day, with more and more bases being opened, some closed down and some literally drifting away as the part of the ice shelf that they were built on, broke off and became an iceberg. 

So the answer to the question "Who lives there" is "no-one". Antarctica is occupied by a succession of visitors, measured in thousands in the summer and hundreds occupying the various scientific bases in the winter.

4/ What is the Antarctic convergence?

The Antarctic Convergence (also known as the Antarctic Polar Front) marks the true outer edge of Antarctica.

It is a strip of sea that goes all around the world just north of the Antarctic landmass. It is made of the furthest south parts of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans from between about 45° and 60° South.

It is not fixed in position and wanders back and forth on a regular basis, but it is a very real and permanent feature. The surface temperature changes by 2-3°C from one side of the convergence (polar front) to the other (that's an awful lot when it comes to the sea over a fairly short distance - about 40km) there are also changes in the chemical composition of the sea water. 

The Antarctic Convergence marks the boundary between the most southerly parts of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans and the "Southern Ocean". Like the weather patterns of the air above it, the Southern Ocean keeps itself to itself and has little to do with the rest of the worlds oceans.

Map of Antarctica

The strip of water of the Antarctic convergence is about 40km wide, it has been in existence for about 20 million years.  It is not fixed in place, but usually stays within about half a degree of latitude (35 miles) of the average position. Over this time there has been very little exchange of sea-creatures from one side to the other.

For instance, there are no Decapod Crustaceans (crabs, lobsters etc.) in Antarctica,  despite them being common every where else in the world's oceans including the Arctic.

The convergence is a complex and turbulent area. Surface sea water cools a lot around the Antarctic continent where it meets the air, as it cools it becomes heavier (warm air rising and cold air sinking also applies to water) it flows away from the Antarctic continent northwards along the sea bed.

At the Antarctic convergence, it meets deep, warmer south-flowing water from the equator. As these two bodies of water meet near the sea-bed, they rise up towards the surface, bringing a great many dissolved nutrients with it which acts like fertiliser for the southern ocean. This upwelling of nutrients from the deep ocean is the reason that the seas around Antarctica are so productive despite the cold temperatures.

5/ Who owns Antarctica?

In the early decades of the 20th century seven nations, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Norway announced territorial claims to parts of Antarctica.

In 1961 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by these nations and others and these territorial claims put aside in the interests of international cooperation in scientific research.

Proper exploration and science in Antarctica across the whole of the continent - instead of just isolated expeditions - began with the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which lasted from July 1st 1957 to December 31st 1958.

35 scientific stations were established on the Antarctic continent with another 15 on sub Antarctic islands by 12 different nations during the IGY.

The IGY was such a great success that the benefits of this international co-operation seemed well worth continuing.

The IGY was followed by a year of International Geophysical Cooperation when the 12 nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, USA, USSR and the United Kingdom) decided to continue their research.

Representatives from each of the 12 nations met in Washington D.C. in 1959 to draft and sign the Antarctic Treaty.

This is an agreement that dedicated the whole continent of Antarctica to peaceful scientific investigation. It came into effect in 1961 and all territorial claims were put on hold.

In 1991, 24 nations approved a protocol (an addition) to the treaty that would ban oil and other mineral exploration for at least 50 years.

The answer to "Who owns Antarctica" is "no-one and everyone".

Antarctic Treaty Papers read the actual documents

Fact File Index  |  Fascinating facts about Antarctica

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