"That motivates a lot of these countries to build a research station there and to fund some kind of scientific research," says Dag Avango, a science and industrial historian at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. "It is about being a part of a larger international community that can make decisions about the future of Antarctica." This includes decisions about how and when Antarctica's natural resources should be harvested. For the moment, this includes only fishing in the ocean waters around the continent. Antarctic krill have been fished for decades; they're used in commercial fish feeds and omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements.
A ban on mining and drilling is enforced until 2048.
"The question of mineral exploitation hasn't gone away in Antarctica," says Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist in polar politics at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "The mainstream point of view" in China, she says, "is that it's only a matter of time that Antarctic minerals and energy resources will be exploited."
"It's globalization," says Lawson Brigham, a retired US Coast Guard icebreaker captain and now professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Higher commodity prices will drive frontier development."
Every nation that hopes to play a role in shaping the future of the poles – whether for exploitation, territory, or conservation – will require certain strategic assets: scientific research that maintains prestige and expertise; well-placed ports, airfields, and research bases in the polar regions; experience landing and launching large military cargo planes on glacial ice; and, of course, icebreakers.
Antarctica differs vastly from the Arctic. The Arctic consists largely of a sea covered by ice that averages six feet thick, fringed by the northernmost territories of three continents; the Antarctic consists of a lone continent isolated by a ring of turbulent seas. While Arctic sea ice is disappearing quickly, the continent of Antarctica is 98 percent covered by glacial ice thousands of feet thick; it contains most of the world's fresh water. Even as Antarctica sheds 200 billion tons of ice per year, contributing to sea-level rise, the immediate effect on human activity there is negligible.
In 1977 an American businessman began importing a new fish from South America to the US: a monstrosity with leathery lips and a mouth evolved for sucking up prey in the blink of an eye – the kind of looks you'd expect of a fish that lurks in the dark, as deep as 13,000 feet. Slicing the fish into skinless fillets relieved it of its appearance, and the businessman erased its last vestige of ugliness by changing its name from Patagonian toothfish to Chilean sea bass. The fish was a hit in restaurants, prompting fishermen to look for it in other places. Their attention eventually turned to a closely related species, the Antarctic toothfish, which inhabits the world's southernmost waters. Commercial harvesting of Antarctic toothfish began in 1996, in Antarctica's Ross Sea.