New Zealand is a critical jump off point for nations sending supplies, personnel to Antarctic research facilities. Christchurch International Airport hosts the New Zealand and American Antarctic operations. It is an ideal location as one of the closest airports in the Southern Hemisphere able to land Antarctic bound aircraft with the American McMurdo base near to the New Zealand Scott Base, named after British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died in an ill fated expedition to beat Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden to the South Pole in 1912.
With oil and mineral resources on the wane in some parts of the world, nations are starting to eye up Antarctica. Exploration has not yet shown what minerals or energy sources exist down there, but the untapped reserves are thought to be considerable. With the potential for a minerals race in which nations try to find a way around the legal and physical hurdles, a very real thing, it the last geographic bastion free from economic development may be in jeopardy.
Nations such as China are becoming interested in what exists down there. China has no claim to the ice and no national presence in the way that New Zealand or the United States have, but that has not stopped significant interest being expressed.
New Zealand’s Ross Sea Dependency is about to have its sovereignty tested. With more international interest in the area, the potential for finding ships that have no good reason to be in those waters is going to increase. With that comes the potential for conflict. Thousands of kilometres away from civilization and in some of the coldest, most hostile waters in the world Royal New Zealand Navy frigates might find themselves confronting ships from bigger, more aggressive powers who have not the same regard as we do for the rule of international law.
How would we react? Would we escort them out of the area? Arrest them? Open fire?
The Ross Sea has a range of important marine species in its waters, some of which are in serious decline elsewhere. Opening up Antarctica would potentially threaten them.
But there also exists the potential for a major environmental disaster. Aside from many nations not having the same regard for the Antarctic environment that New Zealand does, many are also less prepared for dealing with the stark environmental challenges of doing anything at all down there. If, for example there was a major oil or fuel leak from a ship or rig or other facility somewhere, it could be days before any ships could reach it, days before anyone could know the actual nature and extent of the emergency, during which time, the ability to control the damage would have significantly decreased.
We might be a small, peaceful nation trying to make our way responsibly in this world, and well done for doing so, but we need to have an honest conversation about our role in looking after Antarctica. One that needs to happen sooner rather than later.