Antarctica’s sustainability solutions

The decisions taken by the (entirely itinerant) population of Antarctica is not one of the traditional talking points of sustainable development. It’s a hard theme to tackle without getting some details out of the way about a continent that remains quite mysterious to many of us. We don’t have one actor working towards sustainability in Antarctica but many; there is no native population there, there are only 135 permanent inhabitants, who come from various countries out of scientific curiosity.

Spanning 5 million 300 thousand square miles, Antarctica boasts an area larger than Australia or Europe; however, despite explorers reaching it early in the 19th century, temperatures regularly reaching 63 degrees below Celsius stopped short any steps they took to colonize, industrialize or profit from the discovery. Today, it’s considered part of the Common Heritage of Mankind, meaning no part of it can be claimed by any country, though many dispute that. There are treaties guaranteeing the pre-eminence of free scientific research in bases all over Antarctica. As such, it is an interesting case study in sustaining life with limited resources in the face of an incredibly hostile environment. As we’ll see, in Antarctica, sustainability is mandatory.

Among these bases, McMurdo Station in the south is the largest settlement in Antarctica. It’s operated by teams from New Zealand and like most bases, it’s located on the coast, where the toughest icebreakers can provide it with resources year-round. The locals call it“Mac-Town” because of it’s crucial role in resupplying smaller settlements. But recently, ice deposits in the Arctic Circle have grown fragile due to rising temperatures, and for that reason maritime transit has been reduced. So with fewer supply runs, the inhabitants have had to adapt.

One answer was nuclear energy, but it’s been phased out for two reasons:

firstly, the reactors they installed were too vulnerable in polar temperatures and would fracture dangerously. At McMurdo, three wind-turbines with a total power of 1 MgW have been installed and more are in the works to held reduce dependency on diesel-fueled generators. The second issue is the Madrid Protocol, which came into force in 1991, compels it’s 44 signatories to take every by-products of their expeditions out of Antarctica by air or sea, including energy waste such as nuclear waste. This propelled positive improvements in the field of waste management, leading to the creation of a state of the art waste-heat recovery system based on sewage. Today that system is used to heat all 85 buildings on the base and costs only 100 gallons of fuel per year to remain active. In 2003, a waste treatment facility was added on.


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The Madrid Protocol also prevents development and charges states with an environmental assessment of any development in Antarctica, and this has led to criticism of the US Amundsen-Scott base, located at the South Pole. Ten years ago, a highway to MacTown was built to help eliminate the carbon footprint of flights from the US to the base. Since 2006, it provides high quantities of goods and water but the project affected the ecosystem, and they did it again when they gave the base a high-tech renovation in 2010. Still, some compromises had to be made due to the isolated location. Today Antarctica derives almost all its fresh water from desalination, using osmosis to produce 1 gallon of fresh water for every 3 taken has been overhauled. The renovation also made it possible to include a hydroponic greenhouse, which provides the almost self-sufficient base with food, even though the 6 months during which the sun disappears.

Further away in Terre Adélie, the main French base has been working with the Université de la Réunion to fulfill all its needs with renewable energy.


This could all be ending soon though, as all the initiatives seen here are based on the Antarctic Treaty System, born in 1961, after the 12 major actors involved in Antarctic exploration agreed to share the continent. Based on this system, the Madrid protocol and many domestic laws regulate behavior in Antarctica, ranging from respecting the environment to outlawing prospecting for mines. The problem is the Arctic Circle is full of gas, oil and minerals, and, much like the recent fishing ban in the Ross Sea, the mining ban was given a deliberately short lifespan. Said ban is set to expire in 2048, though a recent ban on offshore drilling in Arctic and Atlantic waters belonging to the U.S. and Canada leaves some hope for a continuation of the ban based on cooperation.

Currently, the UK is preparing a claim to coastal waters around it’s bases and Russia’s fleet of icebreakers is on the move. Looking ahead, there are a lot questions:  will Antarctica remain a nature reserve that’s hard to sustain or will we see mines, oil rigs, even cities in Antarctica, like in Siberia and in Greenland? Additionally, will these resources be free for the taking to entrepreneurs or are countries like France, Norway and the Commonwealth Countries, who have claims on most of the land, going to fight to keep them? We don’t have any answers yet, but it’s not impossible that one day some of us might be sent to Antarctica on business.

Grégoire SMELT is currently studying to be a lawyer at the University of Paris-Sud Jean Monnet and the University of Strasbourg, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Law and Sustainable Management of Energies and admission to the Versailles Bar


Grégoire SMELT est étudiant-juriste d’origine franco-britannique, aspirant à l’avocature et fait partie du Master 2 GEDD de l’Université de Strasbourg et de l’IEJ Paris-Sud Jean Monnet


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