On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.
Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.
More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.
But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.
“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics.
Some of the ventures focus on the Antarctic resources that are already up for grabs, like abundant sea life. China and South Korea, both of which operate state-of-the-art bases here, are ramping up their fishing of krill, the shrimplike crustaceans found in abundance in the Southern Ocean, while Russia recently thwarted efforts to create one of the world’s largest ocean sanctuaries here.
Some scientists are examining the potential for harvesting icebergs from Antarctica, which is estimated to have the biggest reserves of fresh water on the planet. Nations are also pressing ahead with space research and satellite projects to expand their global navigation abilities.
Building on a Soviet-era foothold, Russia is expanding its monitoring stations for Glonass, its version of the Global Positioning System. At least three Russian stations are already operating in Antarctica, part of its effort to challenge the dominance of the American GPS, and new stations are planned for sites like the Russian base, in the shadow of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.
Elsewhere in Antarctica, Russian researchers boast of their recent discovery of a freshwater reserve the size of Lake Ontario after drilling through miles of solid ice.
“You can see that we’re here to stay,” said Vladimir Cheberdak, 57, chief of the Bellingshausen Station, as he sipped tea under a portrait of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, an officer and later admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy who explored the Antarctic coast in 1820.
Read more: Countries Rush for Upper Hand in Antarctica
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