This past summer Moscow dominated the headlines when it rammed a Russian flag into the seabed below the North Pole. The move triggered a race for the vast oil and gas fields believed to be stored there, with the United States and several European nations also sending scientific vessels to explore the icy region.
Earlier this week, roughly half a century after it lost its colonial empire, Britain marked a new chapter in the resource race when it surfaced it had drawn up plans to lay claim to 385,000 square miles of seabed -- four times the area of the United Kingdom -- off the coast of Antarctica. The area, partly packed with ice, includes two permanently manned scientific stations and is shaped like a piece of pie cut out from Antarctica. The move, first reported by British newspaper The Guardian, threatens to undermine a 48-year-old treaty (of which Britain is a signatory) intended to prevent a territorial race and forbid any geologic activities in Antarctica to preserve the ecosystem there. It is also expected to spark a frenzy of protests and possible follow-up claims by other states that feel they have a right to the Antarctic Sea.
Like the Russian North Pole claim, the British base their measurements on Article 76 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates that a country can claim mineral rights out to a maximum of 350 nautical miles from the continental shelf.
The British claim, however, conflicts with similar claims brought forward in the past by Chile and Argentina. Chile’s Foreign Ministry on Friday fired back, saying in a statement that Britain's claim "will not affect the rights of our country over the said territory."
Last month, after the Guardian reported Britain also planned to claim seabed adjacent to the Falkland Islands, Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s president, told a U.N. assembly that it was "time the U.K. puts an end to the anachronism of retaining an occupation dating back to colonial times."
That Britain lays down claims in connection with the Falkland Islands seems to be potentially most controversial, as Argentina in the past has repeatedly called on Britain to withdraw its troops from the Falklands.
The islands are a self-governing British overseas territory but have been the subject of a claim to sovereignty by Argentina since the British invasion of 1833. In pursuit of this claim in 1982, the islands were invaded by Argentina, precipitating a two-month war between Argentina and Britain that ended in the defeat and withdrawal of Argentine troops.
Argentina and Chile are also signatories to the said treaty, which with rising temperatures is threatened to be undermined.
Like the North Pole, Antarctica is among the regions hardest hit by global warming; ice is melting at a staggering pace, and that’s why the seas surrounding Antarctica will be increasingly attractive for shipping and mining, especially given ever-rising oil and gas prices. All nations claiming a part of Antarctica must outline their case before the United Nations by May 13, 2009, and the British move is seen partly as one to meet that deadline.
Yet the British claim may not only spark off conflicts with other states; it has also drawn severe criticism from environmental groups determined to preserve one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems.
Greenpeace UK in a statement defied London’s move as a "policy meltdown," adding, "Claiming ownership of one of Earth's last untouched ecosystems is hugely hypocritical, as well as dangerously short-sighted."
David Nussbaum, the head of Britain’s World Wildlife Foundation, said in a statement that networks of marine protected areas should be established to prevent irresponsible energy-related intrusions that will damage the unique populations of fish, seabirds and marine animals including whales, seals, albatrosses and penguins that inhabit Antarctica. According to WWF, krill, the foundation of the Antarctic food chain, are facing a huge reduction in numbers, putting the entire marine ecosystem at risk.
"It is vital that countries start immediate multilateral action to conserve Antarctica and the Southern Ocean for future generations," Nussbaum said.