The United Kingdom is claiming 385,000 square miles of seabed offshore of its existing land claim in Antarctica. The U.K. claims overlap those of Chile and Australia. Under Article 76 of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a country can claim mineral rights out to 350 nautical miles. The claim is contingent on proving that the continental shelf associated with the claim extends out into the sea.
The U.K. claim follows similar actions by Australia and New Zealand under the Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS). Under UNCLOS, countries have until 2009 to submit claims. The actions under UNCLOS either challenge or add to the protections of the Antarctic Treaty, depending on viewpoint. The 1959 Antarctic treating, and the codicil in 1991 regarding environmental protection, does not explicitly address off shore claims.
The claims include areas for possible oil and gas exploitation although technologies for extraction at such ocean depths do not currently exist. No doubt, they will exist at some point in the future.
The U.K. is also working on two other continental shelf claims around southern Atlantic territories: the Falklands and South Georgia Islands. The U.K. has, similar to Russia, sent a submersible to explore the deep-sea area around the continental shelf.
The claim and others that are sure to follow raise at least three key questions about the future of Antarctica in a period of high climate change.
1. Will all seven countries that claim land in Antarctica follow through with off shore claims?
Clearly yes. In fact, three of the seven will have now filed offshore claims. All of these countries will develop undersea vehicles for exploration in anticipation of the expiration of the Antarctic Treaty in 2042.
Brazil proposes delimiting claims using meridians that would give territories to Uruguay, Peru, and Ecuador.
2. Will countries that have claimed islands in the zone also act to secure offshore rights?
The action by the United Kingdom virtually assures this. The Antarctic Treaty area covers out to 60 degrees South parallel. This area includes the Orcadas or South Orkney Islands claimed by Argentina, King George Islands claimed by several countries, and Peter I Island, claimed by Norway. Peter I Island is the only non-sector claim under the treaty.
If countries claim offshore waters then it is possible that some claims from countries out to 50 degrees South parallel will also intrude on the Antarctic Zone. This group includes the Macquarie, Heard, and MacDonald Island (Australia), Campbell and Auckland Islands (New Zealand), the South Georgia and Sandwich Islands (like the Falklands, disputed between the United Kingdom and Argentina), and Bouvet Island (Norway).
Just outside this zone are French claims to Kerguelen Island and Iles Crozet and South African claims to Prince Edward Island.
3. How will countries who have signed the Antarctic Treaty, but do not claim land, react? Many reserve the right to claim lands in the future?
Consider the list of treaty adherents. Russia and the United States reserve the right to claim Antarctic territory. Other members may follow suit including China, India, and Japan who have economic interests. South and North Korea could continue their cold war in Antarctica. Papua New Guinea in 50 years might be a far different country
Climate change will do more than just raise the temperature. It will lead to a cascading of claims to new lands. This change, in both climate and the politics of it, is happening much faster than originally anticipated.