Mining in Antarctica

An iron outcrop in the Prince Charles Mountains.
An iron outcrop in the Prince Charles Mountains. (Photo: John Manning)
A roughly circular piece of gneiss containing the rare mineral sapphirine.Two geologists measuring micro-erosion rates of a rock

There are deposits of minerals such as coal and iron ore in Antarctica, but there are vast economic and technical difficulties associated with the recovery of mineral deposits. The Antarctic ice cover is, on average, 2.5km thick and this means that very little of the land is accessible for exploration, so work would have to take place under the ice sheet. The difficult Antarctic conditions, even when the technology works well elsewhere, make exploitation unlikely.

Once minerals are mined, Antarctica is a long way from world markets, and material would have to be transported over the treacherous Southern Ocean. Cheaper sources exist elsewhere in the world, and these will be exploited before Antarctic sources.

So far, the economics of extracting resources from the harsh Antarctic environment have prevented any commercial operations, but Antarctica’s climate may not protect its minerals indefinitely. What can prevent such exploitation is a strong, well-supported international agreement. Nations of the Antarctic Treaty system agreed in 1991 to put a halt to the exploitation of minerals when they signed a comprehensive Protocol on Environmental Protection (the Madrid Protocol), which banned mining in Antarctica indefinitely. This important agreement came into force in January 1998.