Even though they both belong to the world of cold, the Arctic and Antarctic poles seem to function as two inverted geopolitical mirrors: the North Pole is an ocean surrounded by continents, while the South Pole is a continent surrounded by oceans.
4 million people populate the northern surfaces, whereas only rare researchers venture on the periphery of the Antarctic continent. Climate change affects these two areas, but in a differentiated way: indeed, the ice melts in the north, but develops in certain places of the south pole, thanks to the action of underground rivers. New shipping routes appear in the north, but not in the south.
The North Pole is a militarized energy center and could represent a new Saudi Arabia, retaining 30% of the world’s oil reserves. The South Pole, on the other hand, represents one of the last demilitarized peripheries. While claims on the North Pole have been made exclusively by Western countries (the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia), emerging powers like Argentina and Chile claim sovereign rights over Antarctica.
From a legal point of view, a maritime convention governs the Arctic, while an international land convention applies to the Antarctic.
Regarding mental representations, the North Pole is perceived as a real issue for the great powers, while Antarctica seems to remain outside space and time. The explorer Edward Wilson wrote in his diary of May 22, 1902: “The silence was almost disturbing (…) I could easily imagine that we were not on the Earth, but on the surface of the Moon.“
However, if climate change continues, the situation will be reversed. We will find a sunken pole in the North, a new Atlantis on the surface of which will float the rusty carcasses of Russian or American submarines of a forgotten cold war, suddenly released by the warm waters from the embrace of ice.
On the southern hemisphere, on the other hand, scientific stations will have moved several dozen kilometres towards the center of the pole in order to continue their observations. Its flourishing shores will now welcome their first inhabitants.
Will it be migrants who will have voluntarily chosen to leave the hot plains of Europe in favour of virgin and temperate spaces? May be. But it is more likely that these migrations will be remotely controlled by certain powers. Russians, Danes and Canadians could repatriate the landless peoples of the North to Antarctica. Will these inhabitants live in harmony or fight one against another in this new arena of the antipodes? Will they pay tribute to China, in memory of their distant common Asian origins? It is probably still too early to know, but Beijing will certainly not be hostile, because in the meantime, Australia, still liberal, will have been half peopled by Chinese migrants.
Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is head of the department of war studies of Saint-Cyr’s military academy and a Research Professor at IWP.