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THURSDAY, 17 APR 2014
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Antarctica might have a new type of ice: diamonds
Reuters
File - A couple window-shops in New York's Diamond District in this file photo from  August 19, 2011.  (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
File - A couple window-shops in New York's Diamond District in this file photo from August 19, 2011. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
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OSLO: A kind of rock that often contains diamonds has been found in Antarctica for the first time, hinting at mineral riches in the vast, icy continent – where mining is banned.

No diamonds were found, but researchers said they were confident the gems were there.

“It would be very surprising if there weren’t diamonds in these kimberlites,” Greg Yaxley of the Australian National University in Canberra, who led the research, said by telephone.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, an Australian-led team reported finding the kimberlite deposits around Mount Meredith, in the Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica. Kimberlite is a rare rock where diamonds are often found. It is named after the South African town of Kimberley, the site of a late 19th-century diamond rush.

That does not mean Antarctica will soon see its own diamond rush. Antarctica is not only forbiddingly cold and remote but also protected by a treaty that preserves the continent for scientific research and wildlife, from penguins to seals. The 1991 environmental accord banned mining for at least 50 years.

“I don’t think it’s terribly practical that anyone could actually explore successfully and, personally, I hope mining does not take place,” Yaxley said.

Others geologists doubted the find held much commercial value. Less than 10 percent of the deposits of similar kimberlite are economically viable, said Teal Riley of the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s a big leap from here to mining,” he told Reuters.

The Antarctic Treaty is binding only on its 50 signatories, but it has the backing of major powers, including the United States and China. Many expect the ban on mining to be extended in 2041.

“There is likely to be little opposition to an extension of this prohibition, despite the potential discovery of a new type of Antarctic ‘ice,’” Nature Communications said in a statement.

But another expert said the future was not so clear. Gold, platinum, copper, iron and coal have also been found in Antarctica. Diamonds are already mined today in the world’s colder reaches such as northern Canada and Siberia.

“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.

Riley said there was a fine line between geological mapping and prospecting with an eye to mining. Russia, Ukraine and China, among other countries, have been more active in surveying Antarctica in recent years.

And demand for diamonds is likely to outpace supply in coming years. Few new mines are being discovered to provide the newly wealthy in countries such as China with Western-style jewelry. The last major find was Rio Tint’s Murrow mine in Zimbabwe in 1997.

Diamonds are formed under immense heat and pressure around 160 kilometers below ground in the molten rock of Earth’s mantle. Millions of years later, they are brought to the surface in powerful eruptions and preserved in the distinctive igneous rock formations called kimberlites.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2013, on page 13.
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