Antarctica is the hardest place I know to write about. Whenever you try to pin down the experience of being there, words dissolve under your fingers. There are no points of reference. In the most literal sense, Antarctica is inhuman.
Other deserts, from Arabia to Arizona, are peopled: humans live in or around them, find sustenance in them, shape them with their imagination and their ingenuity. No people shape Antarctica. It is the driest, coldest, windiest place in the world. So why, then, have Britain, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina drawn lines on Antarctica’s map, carving up the empty ice with territorial claims?
Antarctica is not a country: it has no government and no indigenous population. Instead, the entire continent is set aside as a scientific preserve. The Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, enshrines an ideal of intellectual exchange. Military activity is banned, as is prospecting for minerals. Fifty states – including Russia, China and the US – have now ratified the treaty and its associated agreements.
Science drives human investigation in Antarctica today, yet there’s a reason why geologists often take centre-stage. Governments really want to know what’s under the ice. Whisper the word: oil. Some predictions suggest the amount of oil in Antarctica could be 200 billion barrels, far more than Kuwait or Abu Dhabi.
Antarctic oil is extremely difficult and, at the moment, prohibitively expensive to extract – but it’s impossible to predict what the global economy will look like in 2048, when the protocol banning Antarctic prospecting comes up for renewal. By that stage, an energy-hungry world could be desperate.