Monday, April 14, 2014

The Antarctic Oil Myth

Antarctica, the last wilderness, a continent covered by glaciers and surrounded by sea-ice – and full of oil?

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about huge oil reserves in Antarctica. China building a new research station has prompted to write about a “race for resources” between countries and The Guardian also reported on the People’s Republic’s increased presence on the icy continent as proof of their desire to stake a claim to the South Pole’s riches.

Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, resource extraction on the continent is banned and this restriction can only be lifted in 2048 (and only then if 3/4 of Treaty Parties agree and there is a regulatory system in place), so for now, the only way for nations to be a player in the Antarctic game is through scientific research. As one of the most pristine ecosystems left on this planet, Antarctica is a great setting in which scientists can examine anything from climate processes to penguins. But somehow all these articles make it seem as if everyone is just sneaking down there to wait for the Antarctic Treaty to expire and start drilling for the hundreds of billions of barrels of oil supposedly to be found under the ice and rock. But are there really such significant resources?

Antarctic fur seal and king penguins

The Guardian cites a Policy Brief by the Lowy Institute in which National Security Fellow Ellie Fogarty claims that “Antarctica’s predicted oil reserves have been estimated at up to 203 billion barrels”, making it “the third largest in the world.” She cites the source of this information as a publication by Bill St John, then President of Primary Fuels Inc., which was referenced in a publication by MacDonald et al. titled “A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica”.

Thus, Fogarty did not cite the original source of the estimate, but instead cited a reference to it in another work. Furthermore, MacDonald et al. were actually criticizing the St. John estimate as “hampered by poor data”. They explain that St John simply estimated the volume of Antarctic sedimentary basins and assumed that they hold as much oil as very productive regions on other continents. Such an estimate is extremely theoretical and unreliable since it is not based on surveys but rather on guesses. In another report on Antarctic resources, John Kingston, petroleum expert of the US Geological Survey, emphasizes that he does not endorse St. John’s assumptions.

Not only is it extremely unlikely that Antarctica harbors billions of barrels of oil, but it is even questionable if the continent has any reserves that would be worth exploring. In a chapter on Energy Minerals in the Encyclopedia of the Antarctic of 2007, MacDonald, professor for petroleum geology at the University of Aberdeen, explains that the only exploitable coal is hard to get to and that no oil and gas has ever been found. “The petroleum potential is unproven (but likely to be low). Coupled with the difficulties of working in the harsh environment, it is unlikely that any exploration will occur in the future”, the chapter concludes.

The Antarctic continent - covered and surrounded by ice.
Image Credit: NASA
So what is all the fuss about? If Antarctica does not actually hold huge oil reserves, they cannot be a threat to its protection, right? Except that such misinformation creates what Macdonald calls the “El Dorado complex - the idea that unknown lands will be a treasure trove of resources.” Media stories that present this kind of information as solid fact rather than unconfirmed speculation can shape public perception and can influence political action. Countries might be reluctant to designate protected areas if they feel like this will keep them from future prosperity through oil exploitation and thus make way for other types of resource use, jeopardizing the health of this last truly wild place.



  • Fogarty, E. (2011). Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia’s National Interests. Policy Brief. Lowy Institute for International Policy.
  • MacDonald, D. I. M. et al, (1987). A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica, Marine and Petroleum Geology, 5, 34-53.
  • MacDonald, D. I. M. (2007). Coal, Oil and Gas, In: Encyclopedia of the Antarctic (Ed. Beau Riffenburgh), 1, 268-269.
  • Kingston, J. (1992). The undiscovered oil and gas of Antarctica. [Denver, CO]: Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • St John, B. (1986) Antarctica -- geology and hydrocarbon potential, In: Future petroleum provinces of the world (Ed. M. Halbouty) Am. Ass. Petrol. GeoL Mere. 40, 55-100 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We at ASOC Warmly Welcome our New Executive Director, Mark Epstein

February 5, 2014

Dear ASOC Colleagues and friends,

As you know, ASOC’s co-founder and long time leader is retiring. Warm wishes for Jim Barnes have poured in from all seven continents. If you would like to add your wishes to the wall of tributes on ASOC’s website, please email me a thought, poem and/or picture at Jim has graciously agreed to work what was supposed to be half time through March 31st does not seem to know what half time means, and his leadership and guidance has helped me through a tremendously important, busy and fulfilling first month on the job. I know this is a farewell, not a good bye.

Jim has already shared details of my bio in his kind farewell letter. I’ll just add what an honor it is to succeed Jim and to work with you, the ASOC community of friends and colleagues. Ironically, over the past summer, before I was aware of the opportunity to lead ASOC, I had finally gotten around, with the help of my teenage children Ali and Dash, to putting a collection of framed photographs I snapped when on a “trip to the ice” in 1989. Traveling through the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic Peninsula was a thrill beyond words, especially joining one of my heroes, Denis Puleston, who was leading his 31st voyage across "Drake’s Lake.”

However, also being part of the rescue of the stricken Bahia Paraiso and then working with colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund to shine a light on that disaster and the very real threats to wildlife and the last wilderness, underscored the importance of our collective work. I look forward to re-joining the ongoing work to ensure Antarctica remains a place of peace and a wilderness unspoiled.

While I have big shoes to fill, I am confident that with the support of colleagues and friends, we will ensure ASOC’s enduring future as the non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean. In the coming years, we will continue towards a legacy of “no take” marine protected areas and reserves, protecting the wilderness and wildlife from encroachment and increasing a focus on Antarctica as an iconic example of the pressing need to address and reverse climate change. I appreciate you ongoing work and support.

With warm regards,

Mark S. Epstein

Executive Director

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mining Under the Ice

In 1871 the cook of a survey party in Kimberly, South Africa stumbled upon the first exhumed diamond of what is now the world’s premier diamond mining region.  Within a year of that discovery, 50,000 prospectors and miners had descended on the once pristine and uninhabited region.  Today, Kimberley is known for two things - diamonds and the world's deepest man-made hole.  

With the recent discovery of diamonds in Antarctica, it appears the southernmost continent is at risk of following the path of Kimberley. This is one of the more recent episodes in a series of valuable mineral discoveries in the Antarctic.  We have also found evidence of petroleum stores, as well as several precious metals.  However, mining these minerals is especially harrowing, expensive and would decimate the continent.  Thankfully we have the Antarctic Treaty system which expressly forbids the mining of Antarctic mineral resources.  But is it enough?

What is the Antarctic Treaty?
Since it has no permanent or native human population, Antarctica is not singularly governed by any country.  The Antarctic Treaty System and its related agreements govern and regulate activities related to Antarctica.  The treaty, which came into force in 1961, sets Antarctica aside strictly as a demilitarized scientific preserve.  There are now 50 parties to the Antarctic treaty, including the US, Australia and China. 

In 1988, with the addition of what is termed as the Madrid Protocol, the Antarctic Treaty expanded its reach to more widely protect the Antarctic Environment.  Among other things the protocol states, “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited."

So what are we afraid of?
Currently, the Madrid Protocol is set to remain in effect until 2048, at which point it will go under review by the treaty’s consultative parties who may choose not to renew the Protocol.  As our more convenient mineral stores continue to empty, we grow bolder, more innovative, and more desperate to find new sources for these highly valued commodities. 

Some fear that countries are subtly working to position themselves for that moment in 2048, when the consultative parties may let go of the Madrid Protocol.  One need only look to China, which has already built four Antarctic research stations and has scouted the construction site for its fifth.  As China is in no way bashful about expanding their influence into Antarctica, they would have more stations there than Australia and Britain, and one fewer than the US.

Hopefully, the recent proceedings of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are NOT an indication of future Antarctic (dis)agreements.  There was some division at the most recent CCAMLR meeting over the establishment of a marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.  This would have been one of the largest marine reserves in the world, and would protect one of the most ecologically valuable regions on the planet.   However, parties with large fishing interests in the region – namely Russia and the Ukraine – put a stop to this.  If this trend expands from CCAMLR to the Antarctic Treaty, and Antarctic parties continue to act on behalf of their singular short term economic gain over the longterm global benefit, then the Madrid Protocol’s days are most likely numbered.  This would lead to eventual mining in the Antarctic and untold global environmental challenges.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Farewell as ASOC Executive Director

January 17, 2014

Dear ASOC Colleagues and friends -

As many of you are aware, thirty-five years after co-founding the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, and after almost a decade as its Executive Director, I am retiring this year. March 31, 2014
will be my last day on staff. I am pleased to announce that Mark Epstein will take over as ASOC’s new Executive Director on January 20.

Mark officially joined the team January 1, 2014 and the transition to his leadership is well underway. He stood out during a year-long search, based on his decades of work in the conservation community. Mark brings leadership experience as a nonprofit CEO, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of state, national and international organizations. He has been a senior executive with leading organizations, including American Rivers, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and served as board chair for the Coral Reef Alliance as well as several other nonprofit and private sector organizations. His career includes significant experience in strategy, fundraising, communications, and outreach work with diverse coalitions. Mark traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1989 while working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and documented the sinking of the Bahia Paraiso near the US’s Palmer station, underscoring the critical need for strong environmental safeguards to protect the world’s last great wilderness.

Mark is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and NYU School of Law. He also ran for Congress in 1990, earning 41% of the vote with a grassroots-based campaign focused on bringing environmental issues to the forefront in the coastal New York community he grew up in. Mark believes deeply in ASOC’s mission and is excited about working with the ASOC team, its coalition of over thirty NGOs interested in Antarctic environmental protection, and other partners and colleagues.

I am very grateful to my colleagues for the opportunity to lead ASOC, which has allowed me to know so many wonderful people. Antarctica and ASOC will always hold a very special place in my heart. I look forward to supporting Mark in the coming months and to ensuring ASOC’s enduring future as the non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean.


James M. Barnes

Friday, March 29, 2013

[Repost] Preserving One of the Last and Greatest Ocean Wilderness Areas

Preserving One of the Last and Greatest Ocean Wilderness Areas

A jigsaw puzzle of floating ice extends as far as you can see in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, 2006. [John B. Weller photo, courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts]

Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
On March 18, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to a packed room of diplomats from around the globe, non-governmental conservation advocates, and others about the urgency of protecting our vast oceans. New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Mike Moore and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, two good friends of the United States and of oceans, joined the Secretary on the podium at this important event.

The Secretary spoke passionately about our connection and responsibility to the oceans as a people and a nation, and how ocean acidification, pollution, and fishing pressure are challenging our ability to sustain the sea and the benefits it provides to us all. You can read and watch his full remarks here.

These threats to the oceans are why the United States is so firmly committed to the protection of Antarctica's Ross Sea, one of the last and greatest ocean wilderness areas on our planet. This unique region is home to a highly productive and diverse ocean ecosystem that supports vast numbers of whales, penguins, seals, and other marine life.

Joined by New Zealand, we propose establishing a marine protected area in the Ross Sea roughly the size of Alaska. If established, it would be the largest protected area in the world. The protected area would specifically conserve critical habitats, marine life, and areas of ecological importance in the Ross Sea. Other areas of the Ross Sea would remain open to sustainably managed fisheries, allowing countries like New Zealand with an economic interest in the sea to continue to benefit from this rich area. This will give us both a baseline of untouched ocean and comparison regions where we can study the direct impact climate change and fishing are having on the oceans.

It is my sincere hope that the members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources approve our proposal at their next meeting this July. The United States will continue to work closely with all the members of the Commission to seize this historic opportunity. As Secretary Kerry said, "The world has shown that we can work together to ensure that Antarctica remains a place devoted to peace and devoted to expanding the human understanding of this fragile planet that we live on. This is one of the last places we could do this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make it happen."

See original postin at

Friday, February 1, 2013

Melting Ice Sheets...Cyclical or Unprecedented?

We know, thanks to the findings from numerous recent reports, that Antarctica’s Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is currently melting faster than previously thought, and may eventually lead to a three to five meter rise in sea level.   This is largely because the Pine Island Glacier, which acts to regulate much of the flow ice from the WAIS to the ocean, is simultaneously retreating, i.e.melting.  Dr. Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, of the British Antarctic Survey, and his team, have raised the question, is the melting in this region completely unprecedented, or a cyclical phenomenon?   Hillenbrand and his team may have found a new way to answer this question, and predict the rate of future changes for the WAIS, by analyzing the area’s geological past.

What’s going on?  
The ice masses that we are concerned with are the Pine Island Glacier and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).  Ice flows out from Antarctica to the sea.  The Pine Island Glacier acts as a bottleneck, slowing down the flow of ice that would drain into the Amundsen Sea.   As the Pine Island Glacier blocked the flow of ice out of Antarctica, this lead to a buildup of the huge mass of ice that is the WAIS.  

Lately though, the Pine Island Glacier has been showing signs of consistent rapid retreat. This retreat is accelerating the flow of ice from the WAIS out into the Amundsen Sea, at a rate that contributes an estimated 0.15 to 0.30 mm to global sea level rise, per year.   

What did the researchers do?
Hillenbrand and his team, extracted and examined three marine sediment cores which they pulled from Amundsen Sea Embayment, where the Pine Island Glacier lies.  Looking at microfossils in the mud from those cores, the researchers wanted to pinpoint when and where ice covered the bay.  Using data from the cores, the researchers studied the average rate of glacial retreat since the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago.   The researchers chose core-extraction sites based on how ice shelves in that area had been positioned in the past.  

What did they find out?
By looking at the distance from the core locations to the current position of the glacier, as well as the age and depth of the extracted sediments, the researchers were able to get a clearer picture of whether and to what extent the area had shown signs of glacial retreat, in the last 12,000 years.  

Essentially, what's happening is abnormal, but not quite unprecedented. In the last 12,000 years the researchers show that glaciers had retreated about 96 kilometers, but in the last 20 years the glaciers retreated 25 kilometers.  That is a tremendous acceleration in glacial retreat.  However, their findings also showed other similar but rare sprints in glacier retreat over the last 12,000 years.  Whether we are in the middle of one of those sprints is up for debate.

What’s next?
Now we want to figure out exactly why this is happening.  Climate change has led to shifts in wind patterns and ocean currents.  We want to know if these or some other oceanographic or atmospheric shifts have lead to this accelerated glacial melt.  

So what?
This work will help us to make far more accurate models for predicting future ice loss with the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf.  Thus we will have a better idea of how to predict the rate of global sea level rise, into the coming decades.

You can find Hillenbrand et al’s original paper here

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Antarctica Braces for Influx of Invasive Species

 This post was originally published on the National Geographic Ocean Views blog.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean may seem very far away from civilization, but they are at great risk of losing their unique qualities due to human activities. Warmer temperatures and human visitation are increasing the likelihood that invasive species can take up residence in the Antarctic, and potentially cause major changes. Two studies have found evidence of invasions both on land (from a midge) and at sea (from crabs). The remoteness of the Antarctic can no longer protect it from potentially destructive invaders. Forget about The Thing – the scariest alien invaders in the Antarctic come from our own planet.

Concern about a possible crab invasion of Antarctica began in 2007, when ecologist Sven Thatje saw a few king crabs on the outer continental slope of the Antarctic Peninsula. Their presence raised immediate alarms. Unlike more famous invaders like lionfish or brown tree snakes, crabs have yet to gain notoriety as ecosystem destroyers. But in the Antarctic, cold water has long kept out crustaceans like crabs and lobsters, which cannot survive at temperatures below 1°C (just under 34°F). The result is that many seafloor creatures in the Southern Ocean today have not evolved the same defenses against crushing claws as species in other regions. So the discovery of Neolithodes yaldwyni, a species of king crab, by a submersible surveying shallower areas closer to the Antarctic Peninsula (one of the fastest warming areas in the world) was unwelcome news. This indicates that the crabs are more firmly established, and have become truly invasive. The researchers who discovered the crabs estimate that there are 1.5 million crabs in the Palmer Deep. As warming of ocean water increases, the range of these crabs will expand further.

On land, researchers have also recently found evidence of unwelcome invaders that could make life very difficult for native species. This time, the invading species is the midge Eretmoptera murphyi, and they appear to be speeding up the rate at which decay occurs in Antarctic soil. The midge hails from the sub-Antarctic South Georgia Island, but the ecosystem on that island is very different from the one on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the midge has now established itself. Decay in peninsular soil is “not very active,” according to Peter Convey, one of the scientists who discovered the presence of the midge, so the insect will introduce a new process to the ecosystem. Unfortunately for the peninsula, though its ecosystem is composed of different species, the midge can still survive in its climate. Although one tiny insect might not seem to be very disruptive on a continent without many terrestrial species, it has been well established that many Antarctic species are highly vulnerable to disturbances, so introducing a new ecosystem process could introduce a major shift.

Unlike the crab invasion, however, the midge invasion and other invasions of land species can be slowed or prevented by following strict rules that reduce the possibility that species can tag along with humans visiting different areas of the Antarctic. Even so, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate the transfer of invasive species entirely. In the sea, it will be very difficult to slow down the global warming that allows new species to colonize the Southern Ocean, so we will have to wait and see if a crustacean-generated apocalypse occurs for Antarctica’s unique seafloor communities. The presence of these invaders, it seems, only further indicates that humans have impacted the environment in virtually every place on earth, with possibly disastrous results for the world’s biodiversity.

The growing problem of invasive species is yet another reason to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) in Antarctica as soon as possible. By restricting some types of human activities, MPAs provide reference areas that can be compared with areas where activities aren’t restricted, thus helping scientists understand what ecosystem changes are caused by invasive species or climate change versus those caused by fishing or pollution. MPAs can also minimize some human-induced stressors on threatened ecosystems. Unfortunately, MPAs can’t keep king crabs out, but they can help scientists obtain a better grasp on the seismic changes taking place in the frozen south.