Smithsonian Magazine brings us the story of American explorer Charles Wilkes, who while commanding USS Vincennes, was the first to map the coast of Antarctica. They talk about why it is important and why the apparent decline in US interest in Antarctica is dangerous.
As the northern ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is already the scene of international jockeying for mining rights. But as China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has documented extensively, Beijing views Antarctica as the last great terrestrial frontier on Earth, hosting great deposits of coal, natural gas, precious minerals, added to plentiful fish stocks in the surrounding ocean and even vast freshwater reserves locked up in Antarctic ice. China intends to exploit the continent fully once the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, if not sooner. With nations hungry for new sources of oil and mineral wealth, and China laying the groundwork for industrialization of the pole, the stakes for Antarctica couldn’t be higher.
This is why we need icebreakers, and why they have to have provision installing effective self defense weapons. We cannot expect the Antarctic treaty to extend beyond 2048. As soon as one nation withdraws there is going to be a land rush there and it could lead to armed conflict.
As the nation with the greatest historical investment in Antarctica, the U.S. has the resources and authority to lead an international re-commitment to south polar conservation. By reaffirming its leadership role at the pole, America can ensure that the great game of the 21ar century does not repeat the mistakes of those of centuries prior, when the world’s pristine frontiers were fought over and ransacked with little thought for environmental damage, or for what future human generations might do once the last wilderness on Earth melts away.