#AntarcticAlphabet: O is for oil

Oil drips down the trypots and the rigs. It oozes in tarpits, welling up from the ground, the black gold of fantasy released by water under pressure, the raw hydraulics of fracking. The revolution relies on the stuff; prosperity and peace rise with carbon dioxide released into air and ocean. The clock does not go back, the oil cannot return to the head of the sperm whale or the floor of the North Sea.

Oceans open, swallowing icebergs. Borders are moving. Stuff, the stuff, all that stuff we demand, must be moved. Tariffs and regulations are all up for negotiation, but physics is less tractable. Methane melts away ice barriers and cities drown in their wake.

Norwegian economists and Arctic defence hawks flutter. Icelanders eye their fjords as deep-sea-harbours for trans-polar shipping. Alaskan villagers move or drown. An open Arctic, bounded by six nations locked in stand-off, is a new frontier. The very idea of North is changing.

The South is different, has always been different: the counterweight against the arctic, the home of arktos, the Greek bear, its horizon skimmed by Ursa Major. Today we critique and probe a changing land surrounded by the mutable ocean, pure science tinged with the footprint of the nation state.

Oil ushered in Antarctic exploration. Amber liquid spilled from the heads of sperm whales while seals melted in pots on distant beaches. Soon enough, oil ran out in the wild-blue, the whales as finite as the seabed.  Is the black gold to be found in the Antarctic hills, ready to be taken to the hungry north in pipelines or dirigibles?

Not so, it seems.  Little evidence exists for ice-buried oil, and even rare earths are thinly scattered. A small cushion of comfort.

Imagine a fantasy Antarctica opened up by the melted Great Barrier? Bergs might vanish as the fragile ice grinds its way to invisibility revealing dry mountains and riverine plains. Maybe the continent itself can be settled, never warm but opened up, as user-friendly as Sweden, say, or Canada, in some wet-dream of climate survival.

Utopian Antarctica has a pedigree, from Petrarch’s maps to Bauer’s Forgotten World, and Le Guin’s super-grannies at the Pole.  If we can tell the story of Martian colonisation,  can Antarctica offer an exit from the cul-de-sac of growth? The oceans are opening and in the depths we find no more oil. The abyss is another mirror, offering us the stuff of dreams.

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