ANTARCTICA; A Continent in Trouble.
When astronauts view the earth from space they say the continent Antarctica “radiates light like a great white lantern across the bottom of the world.” Containing some 30,000,000 cubic kilometers of ice, Antarctica is an ice-manufacturing machine of continental proportions. Snows falls on the continent and packs down to form ice. Gravity forces the ice to flow slowly towards the coast, and there slips into the sea to form massive ice shelves.
Parts of Antarctica can get so cold, says one writer, that “if you drop a steel bar it is likely to shatter like glass . . . and if you haul up a fish through a hole in the ice within five seconds it is frozen . . . solid.” Because of its extreme conditions and its surreal, naked beauty-at times complemented by breathtaking displays of the southern lights-Antarctica could pass for another world.
But Antarctica is very much a part of this world. Infact, it has been likened to a vast natural laboratory for studying the earth and its atmosphere as well as global environmental changes. It is in relation to these studies that scientists are becoming increasingly concerned. They have observed ominous new phenomena in the south Polar Regions, and these suggest that all is not well.
To begin with, Antarctica-the most isolated continent in the world-is a continent of contradictions. It is supremely beautiful and pristine but brutally inhospitable. It is the windiest, coldest place on earth, yet it is singularly delicate and sensitive. It has less precipitation than any other continent, but its ice represents 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. With an average thickness of some 2,200 meters, the ice makes Antarctica earth’s highest continent, averaging 2,300 meters above sea level. It is also earth’s fifth-largest continent, yet Antarctica has no permanent residents larger than a one centimeter wingless midge, a type of fly.
As you venture into Antarctica’s interior, you see fewer and fewer signs of life, especially when you reach the areas called dry valleys. Covering some 3,000 square kilometers, these polar deserts are mostly set high in the transantarctic Mountains-a chain of ranges spanning the continent and rising in places to over 4,300. Mount Vinson Massif, 4,896.9 meters is the tallest mountain. Yet, even the dry valleys host life! Inside porous rocks, in tiny air pockets, live exceptionally hardy forms of bacteria, algae, and fungi. They all survive on the barest trace of moisture. Outside, their surreal world is one stark rock formations called ventifacts, whose bizarre shape and high sheen are the result of countless centuries of Antarctica’s unremitting winds.
Speculation about a giant southern landmass goes way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle, for one, postulated the need for a southern continent to counterbalance lands known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere. The book Antarctica-Great stories From the Frozen Continent says that “as the northern hemisphere lay under the constellation of Arktos, the Bear, so, Aristotle (384-322 BC) reasoned, the unknown land to the south must be Antarktikos-in other words, the total opposite”- or the antipode. So Antarctica enjoys the distinction of being named, in effect, some 2,000 years before it was discovered!
In 1772, British explorer Captain James Cook sailed south in search of this postulated southern continent. He entered a world of windswept island and huge icebergs, or “ice island” as he called them. Determined, Cook continued south, and on January 17, 1773, his ship, the resolution, and its companion, the adventure, were the first vessels known to cross the Antarctic Circle. Cook doggedly navigated his way through the pack ice until eventually he was blocked. “I could se nothing to the southward but ice,” he wrote in his log. He was infact, just 120 kilometers from Antarctica soil when he turns back.
Cook “stumbled upon what was probably the largest congregation of wildlife that existed in the world, and he was the first man to let the world know of its existence. Nowadays, however, international laws protect all Antarctica flora and fauna. Additionally, an absence of land predators combined with a bountifully marine food supply make the Antarctica coast a summer haven for wildlife. But Antarctica shows signs of a more insidious assault, one that may be beyond the reach of international agreements.
Who Rules Antarctica?
Although seven countries claim portions of Antarctica, the continent as a whole has the unique distinction of having neither a sovereign nor citizenry. “Antarctica is the only continent on earth to be completely governed by an international agreement,” reports the Australian Antarctic Division.
Called the Antarctic Treaty, the agreement was signed by 12 governments and entered into force on June 23, 1961. Since then, the number of participating nations has grown to over 40. The treaty’s objective is “to ensure, in the interest of all mankind, that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”
In January 1998 the environmental protection protocol to the Antarctic treaty came into force. This protocol bans all mining and mineral exploitation in Antarctica for a minimum of 50 years. It also designates the continent and its dependent marine ecosystem as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.” Military activities, weapon testing, and the disposal of nuclear wastes are prohibited. Even sled dogged are banned.
In the meantime, high above Antarctica a hole twice the size of Europe has formed in the atmosphere’s ozone layer. Ozone, a form of oxygen, shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation that damages eyes and causes skin cancers. Because of the increase in radiation, researchers in Antarctica must protect their skin from the sun and don goggles or sunglasses with special reflective coatings to protect their eyes. Only time will tell to what extent Antarctica seasonal wildlife is affected.