Ireland and the Antarctic

Scientists are coming to terms with the news that Russian Antarctic exploration teams managed to break through nearly 4 km of ice last week, to reach Lake Vostok in Antarctica which has been sealed for at least 15 million years.

Lake Vostok is the largest of over 140 lakes found under the surface of Antarctica and is similar in size to lake Ontario, though contains 3 times more water. The presence of these lakes was discovered by calculations first, then by radar.

National Geographic greeted the news by saying that sub-glacial lakes could offer new information about climate history or reveal previously unknown life-forms. Any findings are eagerly anticipated by scientists studying fresh water organisms but could take years to surface.

Location of Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The original is a composite satellite photo from NASA.

Location of Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The original is a composite satellite photo from NASA.

The team, which has now left the station, can only work in extreme conditions during the summer months. The Vostok station holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth: a teeth-chattering -89 C.

As the world erupted with a mix of praise, fear and anticipation at the conclusion of over 20 years of drilling, experts agree that this puts Antarctica back in the spotlight as a place of many resources, both scientific and commercial.

In Ireland, it brings up the fact that Ireland has not yet signed the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The ATS ensures among other things that the continent will be used for peaceful non-military purposes only and encourages scientific cooperation, but does not address the issues of territorial sovereignty.

Christopher J. Wilson, a Wexford-based environmental consultant and co-founder of the Wildside association, is actively involved in lobbying the government to ensure they sign the treaty as soon as possible.

“Ireland is the only country of the heroic age of Antarctic Exploration that has not signed the ATS, the last country to sign up was Malaysia in October 2011,” said Mr Wilson, who is also the great nephew of Dr Edward A. Wilson who died with Captain Scott and his party on their return from the South Pole in 1912.

In November 2003, when the issue was raised in the Seanad by independent Senator Shane Ross, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Mr Dick Roche (FF) responded that the treaty was not considered universal enough, that the UN provisions for Antarctica were enough and that Ireland was not considering joining the treaty at that time.

“Ireland is sympathetic to the view that the Antarctic should be seen as part of the common heritage shared universally and this has influenced our approach to date to the question of accession to the treaty,” said Mr Roche.

In 2007 the same issues were raised by Senator Ross, who expressed frustration about a lack of inter-departmental cooperation. Deputy Trevor Sargeant expressed concerns on the subject: “The United Kingdom, in particular, is moving to establish its entitlements, as it sees them, to the seabed around Antarctica and other parts of the world (…). This presses us into action. The panic over mineral exploration is causing countries to dispose of their platitudes in some cases when it comes to protection of the natural environment.”

An Irish signature of the ATS was then supported by TD Mary White of the Green Party in the latter days of the Fianna Fail and Green party coalition. It was listed in the 2009 program for government but since then, despite assurances of the topic being on the table, nothing has yet been signed.

“It’s going to take 9 pieces of legislation to get Ireland to sign the treaty, so it’s a complex process,” says Mr Wilson. “I’m in touch with the Taoiseach’s office at the moment, who assure me they are going to review the situation in 2012, but it’s stagnating.”

Kevin Kenny, a member of the Shackleton Autumn School committee in Athy, Co Kildare, explains that there are 6 or 7 departments involved in examining Ireland’s potential involvement in the treaty and that Ireland wants to be sure what it’s committing to.

Recent economic circumstances have inevitably impacted the process according to Mr Kenny, but he has received assurances that the intent is still there, though the government gave no timeline as to when they would come back with recommendations.

He explains that Ireland has a historic link to the Antarctic not only through Trinity College and its link to Shackleton, but also through companies who provided research technology for the first exploration missions at the turn of the century.

The treaty is based on cooperation and Mr Kenny says that a recent survey of Irish scientists, who currently access the Antarctic by other means like the British Antarctic programme, indicated that an Irish signature of the treaty would be beneficial with regards ensuring access to shared scientific results and to a voice when it comes to important decisions or concerns.

Irish scientists are nonetheless present in Antarctica and involved in international programmes. Louise Allcock of NUI Galway for example was heavily involved in the Census of Antarctic Marine Life and is a member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, charged with the initiation and co-ordination of scientific research in Antarctica. She says this will form the framework under which national Antarctic programmes will develop and will therefore have a major impact on the future direction of Antarctic research.

Ms Allcock points to Wikipedia, which she says accurately reports the concerns of the scientific community in relation to the contamination of the sub-glacial lakes of Antarctica.

An artist's cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. Liquid water is thought to take thousands of years to pass through the lake, which is the size of North America's Lake Ontario

An artist’s cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. Liquid water is thought to take thousands of years to pass through the lake, which is the size of North America’s Lake Ontario

In the case of the recent Lake Vostok breakthrough, the Russian team is said to have assured ATS signatories that the drilling didn’t affect the lake, despite the fact that the hole was kept open for years with kerosene and antifreeze according to several sources.

Speaking to National Geographic, Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, explained that the team used a hot-water drill during the last few meters to prevent contamination of the lake below.

In 2048, the ban on mining activities will be lifted from the ATS. This currently protects Antarctica as a natural reserve and the future brings up questions around the potential use of the continent’s energy resources.

“Not signing this treaty puts Ireland on the back foot, we should be present and bring a positive voice in the conversation, especially as 2048 draws closer each year,” said Mr Wilson.

Mr Kenny echoes the sentiment: “The Antarctic could be looked at for other resources, so a treaty is important to keep the conversation balanced and we need to be part of it.”

Whether this is still considered a priority in the current Irish economic climate remains to be seen. The Department of the Taoiseach and the Environmental Protection Agency were unavailable today for comment on this matter.

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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