Scientists Find First Diamond-bearing Kimberlite in Antarctica

Scientists Find First Diamond-bearing Kimberlite in Antarctica
Scientists find first diamond-bearing kimberlite in Antarctica

In a frustrating discovery, scientists have found a site containing the rocks that often produce diamonds – in Antarctica. The problem is that the frozen continent is protected from mining for decades under an international treaty. Even if it were not, the prospect of drilling through layers of ice in a harsh climate is likely to deter many would-be miners.

Still, the discovery is scientifically significant, said Dr Greg Yaxley, an Australian geologist and co-author of a paper reporting the find in the Nature Communications science journal on Tuesday.

“It’s the first kimberlite occurrence reported in Antarctica,” he said, referring to the carrot-shaped volcanic rock formations that have been found on other continents and have been a significant source of diamonds in places such as South Africa.

“It’s really not very surprising there are kimberlites there. We were lucky enough to be the first ones to find one.”

The rocks analysed by Dr Yaxley and colleagues from Australia and Europe came from the southeastern slopes of Mount Meredith, part of the Prince Charles mountain range in East Antarctica.

Diamond miners such as De Beers have not been in touch so far, Dr Yaxley said. He added that the chance of the Antarctic kimberlite containing economically viable amounts of diamonds is likely to be very low.

Although kimberlite ore is associated with diamonds, very few such formations have viable reserves. Of 7,000 kimberlites discovered in the past 140 years, only 60 were economic to mine and only seven of those had substantial reserves, analysts at Citi said recently. However, the Antarctic discovery could spur some commercial interest eventually, experts say.

“You could see some mining companies might argue, ‘We can do this; we don’t have to waste this resource’,” said Dr Robert Larter of the British Antarctic Survey.

However, the physical obstacles are immense in a continent that is 99 per cent covered in ice, some of which is 3-4km thick, he said.

Article 7 of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1998, says any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, is prohibited. “Although there is provision for the operation of the protocol to be reviewed 50 years after it came into force, the default assumption is that it will continue,” Dr Larter said.

Very few big new diamond mines have been developed in recent years, leading to expectations of a squeeze in supply by the end of the decade. At present levels of output, existing reserves will sustain global diamond production for 18 years, according to research by Bain & Co this year. About 70 per cent of the world’s 2.3bn carats of diamond reserves are in Russia and Africa.

A new study in the journal Nature Communications.
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