Antarctica will increasingly come under threat as the world's oil supplies dwindle, a University of Canterbury expert says.

The director of the university's Gateway Antarctica, Bryan Storey, said the continent may need greater protection to save it from exploitation by increasingly desperate oil-hungry nations.

Although mining is banned by the Antarctic Treaty, Dr Storey said pressure may mount for this to change, due to the continent's rich mineral deposits.

The Madrid Protocol, which was signed in 1991 by signatories to the Antarctic Treaty banning mining, is up for review in 2048.


"We have every reason to believe that Antarctica has the potential for large mineral and oil resources. If we go back more than 180 million years Antarctica was the centre of a large continent, Gondwana, the geological history of which I have been researching for over 30 years," Dr Storey said.

"All the neighbouring continents that Antarctica was connected to, South America, Africa, India and Australia have all large mineral resources and many of the relevant geological formations continue into Antarctica.

"Furthermore Antarctica - as a result of having separated from those continents - is surrounded by sedimentary basins that are likely to contain substantial oil resources."

Coal and iron ore have been found on the continent, and Dr Storey said a high proportion of ethane and heavier hydrocarbons have been found in drill holes in the Ross Sea region. It has also been estimated the continent holds 45 billion barrels of crude oil and 115 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The Madrid Protocol does not end in 2048, Professor Storey said, but can be reviewed if one of the Antarctic Treaty consultative states asked for a review, 50 years after it became law.

Dr Storey hoped the protocol could withstand the economic and political pressures to mine the continent.

"Anyone who has worked in Antarctica does not want it to happen. My hope is that we will eventually get the message about climate change and move away from a carbon-based economy and not be so dependent on oil and oil based products. Hopefully this will happen before the pressure to extract resources from Antarctica becomes a reality."

Dr Storey is to speak on the issue at Icefest in Christchurch on Saturday.