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  south pole marker
This South Pole marker reads "90 south and flowing freely." Others say "a continent for peace." © NSF

It's not just science that's an experiment in Antarctica
by Robin Marks

You're probably sitting in a chair somewhere while you're reading this. That chair is sitting on some land. That land is owned by someone -- your government, your bank, maybe. If you're lucky, you own the land. The bottom line is: It belongs to someone.

Unless you're in Antarctica.

Antarctica is the only place on the planet where the land isn't officially owned by anyone. A few countries have made land claims (for more about this, see the information box on the next page), but those claims aren't officially recognized and don't cover the entire continent. Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty , written in 1959 and adopted in 1961, which has been signed by 27 countries. Another 17 countries have agreed to abide by the Treaty in order to participate in research being done in Antarctica. The treaty requires (among other things) that information is shared openly among researchers, that science done in Antarctica is for peaceful, non-commercial purposes, and that no weapons development or testing takes place.

The Treaty’s design makes for an interesting political experiment: freedom of scientific pursuit and international cooperation in an environment devoid of military and commercial interests. Sound Utopian? Well, it is. Sort of.

International dealings in Antarctica are both simpler and more complicated than in other parts of the globe. They're simpler because the continent is so isolated, and Treaty laws assure that science there is mostly basic research. That means the work doesn't have an immediate impact on the health, economy, or security of a Treaty nation's population, and doesn't raise as many hackles. U.S. citizens, for instance, raise far more questions about nuclear research in New Mexico than about neutrino research at the South Pole.

On the other hand, when conflicts do arise, officials have no precedents or examples suggesting how to deal with them. In fact, without a governing body, it's sometimes unclear who should deal with things, and who (if anyone) they should answer to. The political momentum that powers decision-making engines in the rest of the world doesn't have as much steam in Antarctica, and that can leave conflicts murky and unsettled.

Politics, schmolitics. What does that have to do with science?

In Antarctica, the answer is: Everything.

Antarctica's population is devoted to science. That science is dependent on the natural environment. The research value of that environment depends on how it's treated by scientists. And determination of how it's treated often depends on negotiations, which are characterized by -- you guessed it -- politics. We all know that politics are plenty complicated when it's clear who's in charge. So imagine the potential confusion on the Continent of Science, where everyone and no one is at the helm.

In short, decisions that can make or break the preservation of Antarctica's unique scientific opportunities depend on an unprecedented political system designed to have no particular decision-making leader.

Confused? Perhaps this example will give you a clearer idea:

The most pristine water on Earth resides in several lakes buried under thousands of feet of Antarctic ice. The largest of these is Lake Vostok, so named because it is near Russia's Vostok Station. It's huge: Compared with Lake Superior (the world's largest freshwater lake), Vostok is the same depth, with about one-sixth the surface area.

For biologists and geologists, Lake Vostok is a potential treasure trove. Nothing has disturbed it for at least 400,000 years. It might host ancient organisms, an active opening in the earth's crust, or an entirely unfamiliar habitat. Russia's ice-coring drills are, at the moment, a mere 150 meters from the lake's ice-covered surface, which means that unprecedented discoveries may be quite near at hand.

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