A Dazzling Discovery: Antarctica may have Diamonds

December 19th, 2013 by Noam Flint

It’s quite possible that there’s another kind of ice on Antarctica. After researchers discovered kimberlite, a rock that often contains diamonds, they’re confident that the continent may in fact be rich in minerals. Although they have yet to find any actual diamonds, they detailed in the journal Nature Communications that the finding points to their existence.

A dazzling discovery: Antarctica may have diamondsA dazzling discovery: Antarctica may have diamonds

A thrilling find

The Australian-led team uncovered the three kimberlite deposits near Mount Meredith, which lies in the Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica. Essentially, a combination of both extreme heat and pressure roughly 100 miles down in the Earth’s mantle provided the perfect breeding ground for diamonds to form. Over the course of millions of years, powerful natural events like volcanic eruptions bring them to the Earth’s surface, where the diamonds are protected inside bluish kimberlite rock formations. Until this recent finding, Antarctica was the only continent that researchers had yet to find kimberlite on.

“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 study, said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

Limited mining

So will there be a diamond rush to Antarctica? It’s not likely, and not just because of the frigid temperatures. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty treaty banned mining on this continent for at least half a century. That means that even if there are diamonds here, no one will know for sure until 2041 at the earliest.

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While the possibility is still uncertain, other factors point to the possibility being a promising one. According to Reuters, gold, platinum and copper have been discovered in Antarctica. Furthermore, diamonds have already been found in similarly cold regions like Siberia and northern Canada.

Meeting the surging demand for sparkle

The fact is, the supply for diamonds may be dwindling, while the demand is only rising steadily. In fact, Reuters noted that the last time there was a major diamond discovery was 16 years ago in Rio Tinto’s Murow mine in Zimbabwe.

“The fact they are reporting Group One kimberlites is an important one as diamonds are more likely to be found in this style of kimberlite eruption,” Teal Riley, a survey geologist with the British Antarctic Survey, told the BBC.

However, Yaxley pointed out that not all kimberlites contain valuable grades of diamonds. Those that do contain less than 1 carat of diamond per ton of kimberlite. Still, there is hope that the icy continent may be hiding some stunning gemstones – and we may eventually see them for ourselves. While the ban prohibits the extraction of mineral resources for non-scientific purposes, that treaty is up for review in 2041. That means that these rules could indeed change. By that time, researchers may even have more sophisticated capabilities for uncovering any diamonds that exist within the kimberlite.

“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 Dr. Kevin Hughes from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, as quoted by BBC News.