The Southern Frontier: Opportunities and Challenges in Antarctica

The poles aren’t as inaccessible as they used to be. Climate change has made Arctic shipping routes more navigable than ever before, while record temperatures are making swaths of Siberia and northern Canada amenable to human settlement. As rising sea levels, desertification, and heat waves force people out of hitherto livable regions, we will witness a vast migration northwards, but there may also be a move to the south—the extreme south. In another century Antarctica could be a continent bustling with its own sizable population, tens of millions eking out a living in what has until now been a frozen and inhospitable wasteland. The seventh continent would, like the others, become a permanent arena for human existence, where people would live, work, and raise families. In today’s post I will explore the logistics and feasibility of potential Antarctic settlements, both before and after the collapse of the ice sheets.

Graham Bartram’s design for an Antarctic flag, taking a pleasantly minimalistic approach.

First, let’s look at some of the history behind proposals to settle the Antarctic. According to Wikipedia, such speculation was popular in the 1950s, when there were vague plans for domed cities buried in the ice, powered by nuclear reactors and situated atop mining tunnels. In 1971, German architect Frei Otto and his colleagues invented a design for a two-kilometre-wide dome housing 40,000 permanent inhabitants. None of these plans were ever taken very seriously, of course, but it is worth noting that about eleven people have been born in Antarctica, most of them at the Chilean and Argentine stations. The continent’s overall population is around 5,000 in the summer and 1,000 during the winter; it is, however, exclusively a place to work, not a place to live.

This is dictated by international law. Colonization of Antarctica is more or less illegal under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which also prohibits military activity and nuclear testing on the continent; the treaty will be open to modification, however, in 2048, which will potentially allow for large-scale colonization and mining operations to commence. The exact changes to the treaty are hard to predict, but we can get a very rough idea of what the geopolitical environment will look like almost thirty years from now: we can predict a warming planet, increasing resource scarcity, the ascendancy of China and India, and escalating international tensions. As the Antarctic thaws, nations may be eager to grab a piece of the pie.

Behold: Free real estate! By Stephen Hudson / CC BY-SA (

What does the continent have to offer a resource-starved 21st-century superpower? Economically, the main industries of an Antarctic colony would be fishing, tourism, and mining. The first two might not be reliable bets—fisheries are probably going to collapse as the oceans warm, and tourism won’t be particularly appealing if Antarctica is polluted more and more by human exploitation—but there could be vast wealth contained in previously unexploited mineral and fossil fuel deposits. We know already that iron and coal can be found in the Transantarctic Mountains and the Prince Charles mountains, while oil and natural gas lie offshore in the Ross Sea. Other riches may exist beneath the ice cap—perhaps platinum or lithium, or some other resource that would justify the cost of tunneling kilometers to get it.

This brings us to the challenge of colonizing Antarctica as it is—or as it will be in thirty years. Probably the biggest issue is that 98 percent of the continent is buried beneath kilometers of ice. There are a few ice-free areas, such as Wright Valley and the Schirmacher Oasis, but the region is altogether dominated by two vast glaciers, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which present numerous engineering problems.

Building structures in a polar icecap is not unprecedented. Project Iceworm was a 1950s United States military initiative to construct a missile base in northern Greenland; while no missiles were actually placed there, the US built two proof of concept installations, Camp Fistclench and the larger Camp Century, which comprised numerous tunnels dug into the ice.

Camp Century layout. It operated from 1959 to 1967, and was powered by a nuclear reactor.

Unfortunately, the Greenland ice proved to be less stable than expected. Ice tends to flow and distort itself, even in a large sheet, and maintaining Camp Century proved to be a constant battle against deformation. For instance, after just three years the ceiling of the reactor room had to be raised 1.5 meters. Eventually this proved too much to handle and the plans to build an Arctic missile base were scrapped.

The same thing might happen in Antarctica, if one were to attempt to dig a warren of tunnels in the ice. The technical know-how to build more permanent structures exists nowadays—we are no longer in the 1950s, we could probably come up with something more rigid—but it would nevertheless be a challenge. There are other issues, too. All building materials would have to be imported, at least until a local icecap-mining and metallurgical industry is established, and, with solar panels being useless for half the year, there would be only two viable sources of energy, namely nuclear and wind power. Fossil fuels could also work if offshore Antarctic oil drilling becomes a reality, though we ought to be weaning ourselves off of those as quickly as possible.

I imagine it would be possible to build a number of sturdy, nuclear-powered domes in the East Antarctic ice sheet, containing homes and forests kept at moderate temperatures. Perhaps these could serve as habitats for workers mining kilometres below. They would drift slowly, with the ice, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily a deal-breaker; the cities would just have to be dismantled and moved inland every several hundred years. Transit between them could use airships, planes, or rugged cargo crawlers, aided by the ice sheet’s extremely flat surface. Extremely cold temperatures—as low as -89 degrees Centigrade—would discourage anybody from venturing outside their domes or vehicles during the winter.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is remarkably stable, making it a decent candidate for colonization if we ever find a way to mine beneath the ice sheet. The region could export minerals—and possibly fresh water, though I’m not sure about the economics of that—and grow its own food in hydroponic domes. Low temperatures could enable manufacturing processes that are difficult to replicate elsewhere on Earth.

Also worth looking at is the Antarctic Peninsula. This, too, is covered in ice, but it isn’t as deep as the ice in East Antarctica, and there are rocky patches as well. The peninsula is likely to get a lot warmer over the next few decades, potentially enabling large-scale colonization. These colonies would be maritime economies, seeing as the area is dotted with islands and situated near the strategic Drake Passage beneath South America, and they would be connected with the rest of the world primarily by sea lanes.

The Antarctic Peninsula, one of the likeliest sites for a colony.

Now, let’s look a little further afield at the second scenario: colonizing Antarctica after climate change reshapes the continent. Just how much ice remains at the end is up to us, but at this rate large sections will end up ice-free and at livable temperatures, allowing for widespread settlement and even farming.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet will be the first to go; its collapse is expected to take hundreds of years. Once it is gone, a considerable amount of land will open to human settlement, though that pales in comparison to the area trapped beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. If both areas lost their ice it would reveal a continent larger than Europe.

Antarctica without ice, taking into account sea level rise and isostatic rebound (the bouncing-back of terrain weighed down by ice).

The civilization that would hypothetically take advantage of this would be quite unlike ours today, which, in the climate chaos of the 21st and 22nd centuries, would be bound to collapse. The survivors, after they’d spent centuries rebuilding and regaining lost technology, would look south to a continent newly opened up to habitation, full of nascent forests and plains, and they would scramble to claim it. In a thousand years we could see post-apocalyptic warlords fighting over an ice-free Antarctica.

Do I think the near-term colonization of Antarctica is likely? To some extent. Humanity, desperate for land, might well put colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula by the end of the century. Further out, prospects are more exciting still—vast chunks of the ice sheets are going to melt with the warming that has already been baked into the system, and humans will be around in another thousand years even with the worst-case climate models, so I think it’s likely that someone, someday, will live out an entire lifespan on the seventh continent.

Further reading:

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