For the first time ever, geologists working in Antarctica have found a type of rock that's known to bear diamonds — a discovery that could expose the polar continent to opportunistic prospectors.
Called kimberlite, it's a volcanic rock named after the town of Kimberley in South Africa, where the discovery of an 83.5-carat (16.7 g) diamond in 1871 kick-started a diamond rush. These rocks appear in vertical structures called kimberlite pipes — the single most important source of mined diamonds today. The rocks were found around Mount Meredith in the Prince Charles Mountains.
The geologists who discovered the kimberlite samples didn't find any diamonds, but they're now wondering if the icy continent contains vast mineral riches.
Antarctica is currently off limits to mining. In 1991, 50 signatories signed the Antarctic Treaty, an environmental accord that's set to expire in 2041. The treaty was put in place as a way to preserve the continent for scientific research and wildlife. The accord, which is only binding to the 50 nations who signed it (including the US and China), is expected to be extended when it expires.
But as Reuters reports, that's no guarantee:
"We do not know what the Treaty Parties' views will be on mining after 2041 or what technologies might exist that could make extraction of Antarctic minerals economically viable," said Kevin Hughes, of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Mr Riley said there was a fine line between geological mapping and prospecting with an eye to mining. Nations including Russia, Ukraine and China have been more active in surveying Antarctica in recent years.
Indeed, if there's diamonds in them thar icy hills, it won't be easy to extract. The geologists who conducted the study doubt that the find could be commercially viable, citing Antarctica's remoteness, cold, and winter darkness. But where there's a will — or profit — there's a way.
Read the entire study at Nature Communications: "The discovery of kimberlites in Antarctica extends the vast Gondwanan Cretaceous province."
Related: Canada says it owns the North Pole