Antarctica: Expert spots 'underwater structure' on Google Maps
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The icy continent is reserved for scientists from around the world to study the history of the Earth and the effects of climate change in a remote area unspoilt by human activity. But experts now fear Moscow is turning its attention to the region, which has been protected by the Antarctic Treaty System for more than 60 years. The global pact sets aside the frozen desert as a scientific haven, bans military activity on the continent and suspends eight territorial claims to the region, including Britain’s – which is disputed by Chile and Argentina.
But historian and author of ‘The Historiography of the First Russian Antarctic Expedition,’ Rip Bulkeley, detailed why it could be a source of tension in the future.
He told Express.co.uk: “At the time of the treaty, all territorial claims in Antarctica were frozen.
“Neither the USA nor the Soviet Union had made such a claim, both however reserved their rights to do so in the future. Neither has made a formal claim to date.
“But unlike all other parties to the Treaty, Russia now shows disturbing signs of being ready to make a claim, if not to some specific part of the continent, then to a disproportionately large share of mineral and other resources as climate change makes them increasingly accessible.
“While officials are willing to voice support for the Treaty as they interpret it, they never mention, let alone support, the Protocol on Environmental Protection which is now the cornerstone of the Antarctic Treaty System.”
In recent months Australia, the UK and the US have all significantly reduced their presence in Antarctica due to the pandemic.
Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on rising sea levels and the effects of global warming, but they also leave the door open for potential conflict on the protocol.
Russian researchers continue to work on the continent and are reportedly pushing their luck for more access to fisheries, oil reserves, and mining.
Even before the pandemic, experts warned that this scientific research could be to further their claims on the continent and also exploit its minerals.
In 2048, several elements of the Antarctic Treaty will come up for contention but geopolitical expert Professor Klaus Dodds previously told Express.co.uk that a “grey area” of the treaty could see issues arising sooner.
He said: “Under the ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection’ mining is banned, but there has always been this grey area where what counts as geological research could look like mining.
“So you’ve always got this dual-use element of science – it’s brilliant for learning about things, but can also be used to evaluate what’s in certain environments.
“So there is anxiety over fishing first, then minerals later and you don’t need to invoke a date like 2048 to see the potential pressure points.
“What we are absolutely going to see is China and Russia becoming more and more assertive in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
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“I think the next decade is going to be absolutely crucial.”
And Mr Bulkeley detailed how Russian President Vladimir Putin may do this.
He added: “Their position is explicitly based on the historical claim that Russian explorers were the first to sight the Antarctic mainland, on January 28, 1820, and the legal claim that that event gives them special rights over the continent as a whole.
“President Putin takes a strong interest in the work of Russian scientists in Antarctica and regularly congratulates them on the anniversary of the alleged discovery.
“He also encourages lobbyists for Russian interests in Antarctica, and actively supports new investment in Russian stations.
“In 2015 he presided over a session of the Russian Geographical Society which emphasised the future importance of Antarctic resources and the need to insist on Russia’s historical priority.
“Valerij Lukin, the Deputy Director of Russia’s Antarctic programme, could not maintain his public support for ‘Russian Antarctica’ without Putin’s consent.”
Mr Bulkeley details in his new publication why their basis of the Russian claims are false.
But, nonetheless, it may pose a serious threat to the future of the Antarctic Treaty System.
He continued: “Putin is generally seen as the saviour of Russia’s Antarctic programme, and satirists have portrayed him as aspiring to build a ‘White Empire’ at the two Pole.
“The claim to first discovery was first put forward in 1949, 129 years after the alleged event, as a Cold War response to a move by America to take possession of Antarctica through a Western condominium.
“The claim is based on a single, unreliable document, and Russian historians have used fallacious arguments and textual cuts and misreadings to sustain it over the past 72 years.
“Part of their problem was that the alleged sighting of January 28, 1820. had to be ‘right’, because a British expedition definitely saw the mainland two days later.
“The political pressure made it impossible for them to settle for another sighting by their expedition three weeks later, which is based on much better evidence.”
Mr Bulkeley warns that a potential Russian “revision” of the Protocol on Environmental Protection “would be hard to reconcile with”.
He adds that it could see Russia “walk out of the Treaty” and start “exploiting Antarctic resources” on their own terms.
‘The Historiography of the First Russian Antarctic Expedition, 1819–21’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan and available to purchase here.
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