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Australia and other owners of the Antarctic territories may be ill-prepared to face a major environmental challenge to the continent, according to a Queensland University of Technology academic.
QUT media and communication lecturer Dr Christy Collis said that, with its massive resources of fresh water and unknown quantities of oil, Antarctica could be ripe for exploitation once resources in the rest of the world became scarcer.
Dr Collis said this issue was particularly important for Australia as it laid claim to 42 per cent of Antarctica, giving it ownership of 10 per cent of the world's available land.
Her claims coincide with this week's news that Britain is planning to claim sovereign rights over more than a million square kilometres of the territory.
Dr Collis is researching the cultural, legal and geopolitical aspects of Antarctica and said the treaty between 45 nations which governed the icy continent did not make the continent's future entirely stable or secure.
"So far, the Antarctic Treaty is a triumph of environmental protection and there is an unprecedented genuine shared goal to protect the environment," Dr Collis said.
"There's a moratorium on mining until 2048, but the issue is that, if someone started to mine in the Australian territory for example, what would happen?
"Would Australia act as a force to intervene, or would the Treaty as a whole somehow respond if there needed to be physical intervention?"
The Antarctic Treaty, which is contentious because the land claims it contains are not recognised by all nations, partitions ownership between Australia, Norway, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand and the UK.
"There are a lot of question marks around the future," she said. "I don't want to sound negative because ...legally, all that can be done is being done to protect Antarctica," she said.
"In the 1950s, India and more recently Malaysia suggested Antarctica be under UN jurisdiction but there was heavy resistance to that notion from claimants."
Dr Collis' research focuses on the cultural approaches to Antarctica by the seven nations which have colonised the continent. She said, as a Canadian who now lived in Australia, she was fascinated with the "mechanisms through which we got these huge tracts of land".
"Antarctica, the high seas, outer space and international shared spaces... for a long time we've divided the world into countries so I'm interested in how we think about these other spaces."
This year is the International Polar Year, which is the largest international research program in the polar regions.
Media contacts: Carmen Myler, QUT media officer - (07) 3138 1150.**High-resolution images of Dr Collis are available for media use**
Dr Christy Collis says the Antarctic Treaty does not make the icy continent's future entirely stable.