The Only Place In the World Not Yet Rocked By the Virus

Antarctica may look barren, but it is free of the disease—for now.

New York continues to slowly open up after being the nation’s hottest of COVID-19 hotspots while the incidence in Brazil spikes, and cases explode in Latin America and South Asia.

There is one place, however, that has been far from infections and safe from the need for serology testing: Antarctica. It’s not exactly a holiday destination, but this continent is sparsely inhabited, plays an important global research role and, so far, is safe from nearly every disease known to man. If the hot zone is where disease can break out, the frozen zone of the South Pole is where human disease rarely ventures.

Antarctica, however, also happens to be the least hospitable place on Earth. That doesn’t mean that adventurers, researchers and nations stay away. In fact, it is an attractive continent for explorers who care to trek on pristine ice. It’s also a perfect laboratory for investigating geologic history, climate change and whales, and for filming cute movies about penguins.

Most important, however, is that it doesn’t belong to any one nation. Like outer space, Antarctica does not fall under the jurisdiction of any one country or fly one flag. It is both no one’s and everyone’s. COVID-19 has been kept off the continent through a joint decision by several nations.

Antarctica is not only free of disease and exploitation of its resources, it is also a fully non-nuclear and demilitarized zone. In fact, there’s a 1958 international treaty that guarantees that, “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited . . . the establishment of military bases and fortifications, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.” The treaty remains in force until 2048. And that is when all hell could break loose.

Treaties sometimes are not worth the paper on which they are written. China signed a 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom to keep Hong Kong free in a one country-two systems status quo until 2047. That treaty just got crushed last week.

Similarly, China and Russia are eyeing the current Antarctic treaty to evaluate the world’s willingness to enforce it. Beijing and Moscow are also preparing to build cultural symbols, send personnel, deploy dual-use military hardware and plop down oil- and gas-extraction rigs on the day the Antarctic treaty lapses. This is a real cause for concern.

Antarctica may look barren, but it is resource rich. Under all that ice lie precious ores and minerals, from gold to uranium. The Ross Sea that surrounds Antarctica has massive untapped energy reserves, according to a U.S. Geological Survey.

The most obvious, plentiful and valuable resource in Antarctica is—wait for it—ice! About 70 percent of the world’s fresh and potable water is trapped in Antarctic ice. Getting to all those valuable resources is the challenge, of course. But time and technology march on, and what seems foreboding today may be easy-peasy tomorrow.

Can’t the world’s major powers just get along, collaborate on shared interests, and protect the global commons? If the Antarctic’s polar opposite—the Arctic—is any indication, then the answer is nyet.

Near the North Pole, the fight over the Arctic’s sea lanes, resources and strategic military basing already have heated up. As global warming melts down and opens up a once frozen north, China covets the prospect that a northern sea channel can alter trade routes and dramatically cut shipping times from its ports to Western markets.

Russia, for its part, is way ahead on controlling those sea channels. Moscow’s formidable collection of icebreaker navy ships means that it has the technical ability to cut swaths of ice, open lanes, patrol, pilot and free ships. The United States and other Arctic Council nations object to Russia’s asserting greater control there, but its presence and plans are bolstered by military might.

From a commercial perspective, the Arctic’s climate-change story has a silver lining via the opening of new trade routes and allowing access for resource exploitation. There is, however, also a significant downside to warmer climes. Right now, Siberia is on fire, a raging inferno releasing tons of carbon dioxide and on track to be the largest Arctic fire on record. An unprecedented heatwave has fueled this fire and brought Siberian temperatures to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Further, increased Russian commercial activity led to a massive Arctic fuel spill that has an environmental watchdog seeking more than $2 billion in damages.

As in the Arctic, Russia and China would like to lay claim to Antarctica’s continental resources as soon as possible to make sure they get and retain access, rights, control and ownership early. Claims are on hold for now, but when Antarctica does open up and nations rush to cash in, is there any doubt that some of the ills that are already plaguing the north will eventually migrate south?

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.