(4) Antartic

 Antarctica is melting faster than originally thought, new study finds


Claiming and negotiating the Antarctic

When looking at a globe, typically, the political boundaries dividing the world into 190-odd nation states will be clearly marked. There will be areas of uncertainty such as the Indo-Pakistani borderline, the status of Palestine, and/or the ownership of the Falklands/Malvinas. Looking further south, the Antarctic continent is frequently represented on globes as untroubled by political boundaries. Such a position, on the face of it, would be eminently appropriate for the only territorial region in the world without an indigenous human population. Whether by intention or omission, such globes and their representations of the political geography of the Earth are misleading. Large parts of the Antarctic are claimed by seven states - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The most substantial claim to the polar continent is the Australian claim to Australian Antarctic Territory - some 2.2 million square miles in size – with a small, transient population.

Uniquely, there is a portion of the Antarctic that is not claimed by any state and which is termed the ‘unclaimed Pacific Ocean sector’. The vast majority of the international community do not accept these claims to the Antarctic. While countries such as Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom have recognized their mutual claims, the Argentine, British, and Chilean claims overlap with one another, and the three parties remain at loggerheads. The ownership of the Antarctic remains unresolved and, just as some states believe that their claim is legitimate, other members of the international community state that this space should be considered a common property – and thus belong to all the members of the United Nations. The term ‘global common’ would be an appropriate description of the Antarctic. Over the last hundred years, three distinct phases help to explain how the Antarctic has been claimed and colonized. This chapter tackles the claiming phase (in the main 1908–40, and epitomized by the ‘Antarctic Problem’); the negotiating phase (1940s–1950s, including the International Geophysical Year and the Antarctic Treaty negotiations); and the post-colonial phase (1960s onwards). Initially, this region was immersed in colonial and anti-colonial rivalries, encompassing regional states such as Argentina, imperial states such as Britain and France, and expressly anti-colonial states such as them; text-indent: 0.01em; ed6fie United States and the Soviet Union. Thereafter, on the back of major initiatives such as the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958) and a US-led scientific diplomacy campaign, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty emerged after some fierce negotiations over territorial claims, nuclear testing, and the role of non-claimant states.

As a consequence of the above, the story of the Antarctic Treaty is a celebratory one. Surrounded by a series of creation myths, a vision is offered up of far-sighted men (and they are all men in this story) using science and peace to construct said landmark agreement, designed to save the Antarctic from the grubby Cold War and colonial geopolitics. Intrinsic to this rendering of events, without the complication of an indigenous population, is a benign interpretation of the immediate decades leading up to the Antarctic Treaty. It ignores the manner in which the Antarctic was colonized and administered. The role of the United States is seminal, especially in the way that it negotiated open and unfettered access to the Antarctic. Without the need for territorial colonization, the Antarctic Treaty helped to secure US dominance and Soviet interests.

Claiming phase

Notwithstanding a lack of an indigenous human population, the Antarctic was colonized by a variety of imperial powers and post-colonial states over a period of some 500 years. The Columbian encounter with the so-called New World initiated this colonizing process. Under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and an earlier Bull Inter-Caetera (1493), Spain claimed title to all territory west of a line extending from the Arctic to the Antarctic. On the eve of their respective independence, Argentina and Chile believed that they inherited those territorial rights to the same areas of the Spanish Empire. As with their continental territories, a major question confronting these newly created post-colonial states was where their mutual boundary might lie stretching from the northern Andes to the South Pole.

Argentine and Chilean national histories are taken up with the demarcation of an international boundary and the resolution of disputed territories in the Andean borderlands. Both states extend their national territories southwards, and in the case of Argentina, the so-called ‘Conquest of the Desert’ in the 1880s decimated indigenous peoples. By the turn of the 19th century, negotiations were ongoing over the extreme south such as Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle Channel into Drake’s Passage, where the mutual boundary was fuzzy but it would extend to the South Pole. These claims to a southerly frontier were open-ended, vaguely defined, and implicit but not insignificant. Argentina was the first country in the world to maintain a permanent presence in the Argentine Antarctic sector.

Audaciously, at least to South Americans, the UK issued a defined claim to the Antarctic in 1908 via Letters Patent. Revised again in 1917, the British claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID) extended the South Atlantic Empire southwards following the annexation of the Falkland Islands in the 1830s. Spurred on by whaling and further acts of discovery and exploration, the British established a series of legal, political, and scientific mechanisms and procedures designed to consolidate imperial control. Leopold Amery, who served as Colonial Secretary from 1924 to 1929 and advocated British imperial authority throughout his long career, was at the forefront of endeavours to extend British control over the whole of the Antarctic, even if it was only partially mapped and explored. Invoking ‘environmental authority’, British officials opined that the UK was uniquely blessed with scientific and administrative skills necessary to manage a challenging.

Pursuing this ‘selfless’ policy, British officials encouraged New Zealand to assume administration of the Ross Dependency in 1923, and Australia to lay claim to an enormous sector called the Australian Antarctic Territory. South Africa was approached as well, but declined to actively help the Antarctic turn pink on British imperial maps. In response to British imperial manoeuvrings, France announced that it would claim another part of the Antarctic, on the basis of past acts of exploration and discovery, especially by the 19th-century explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. In 1924, the French territory of Adélie Land was established, and extended sector-like towards the South Pole. Significantly, the French claim was later recognized by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Amery’s master plan for total imperial control was thwarted, though dreams of almost-complete British control persisted. Britain really did not want any neighbours in the Antarctic.

In the same year of the French claim, the United States, under its Secretary of State Charles Hughes, emphasized an ‘open-door’ policy for the Antarctic, unrestricted by the territorial claiming by others. Significantly, this declaration brought to the fore two competing visions for the Antarctic. On the one hand, claimant states were eager to delineate their national/imperial spheres, while claiming to be acting on behalf of ‘mankind’. On the other, the US represented a different vision, one less motivated by territorial claiming (at least publicly) and more by open access. Up and until the late 1930s, territorial claiming prevailed. Norway, in advance of a feared territorial claim by the German Antarctic (Neu-Schwabenland) Expedition, announced that they would be laying claim to a sector of the Antarctic between the Falkland Islands Dependencies and the Australian Antarctic Territory. Termed ‘Dronning Maud Land’, the Norwegian claim was based on previous whaling expeditions in the region, and was formally announced on 14 January 1939. At the same time, however, German aluminium markers embossed with swastika lay abandoned over the ice-bound coast, in what the German (rather than any Norwegian) expedition leaders termed ‘Neuschwabenland’. Germany’s defeat in 1945 ended hopes of a German Antarctic sector, but did not dampen speculation that some Nazis still dreamed of resurrecting a Fourth Reich there. Japan, too, forfeited any claim, despite earlier involvement in exploration and whaling.

Argentina (claim made in 1940) and Chile (claim made in 1943) were late starters by European standards. Unlike the others, they were convinced that their southerly territories were part of an imperial inheritance and integral to national territories. The only issue to be resolved was the declaration of a mutual boundary between two South American neighbours. In that sense, there was no Argentine or Chilean claim. Argentina and Chile copied the behaviour of Britain, mindful of international legal precedents regarding remote and thinly occupied spaces. In mimicking the behaviour of an imperial state, Argentine and Chilean parties participated in their own ceremonies of possession, usually involving planting flags, reading solemn declarations, mapping territory, assessing resources, and naming places after independence heroes such as Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín.

Britain hoped vainly that the US might claim the hitherto unwanted Pacific Ocean sector and join the claimant club – not unreasonably given that US Antarctic expeditions in the 1930s and 1940s carried out ‘sovereignty performances’ such as dropping flags out of aero plane windows. Furthermore, Richard Byrd reported back to major initiative" about evidence of mineral wealth of the polar continent in a blatant attempt to stimulate further interest. Later, he even posited the idea of setting off nuclear explosions to melt the ice and reveal all those would-be minerals – a form of nuclear engineering. However, US reluctance to make a claim was critical in shaping the future politics of the Antarctic, and for the intervening years added extra uncertainty for the claimant club’s membership. Their reaction was to devise new roles and rules in order to fix, map, and record their presence – a new round of ‘sovereignty games’ was unleashed on the Antarctic.

Sovereignty games and the Antarctic Problem

In 1943-1944, in the midst of the Second World War, British troops and scientists were dispatched to the Antarctic, in a secret naval operation called Operation Tabarin. Named after a Parisian nightclub, and backed by Prime Minister Churchill, the aim was straightforward. British personnel were expected to strengthen Britain’s title to the territory in question, and this meant establishing a permanent foothold. Bases were created, flags were raised, plaques were secured, post offices established, theodolites were readied, and signposts embossed with ‘crown lands’ were planted. Britain was getting serious – pressing surveys into action and busily issuing postage stamps. It was going to be a policy of terra nostra rather than mare nostrum.

In 1951, a British civil servant, Bill Hunter Christie, published an insightful book called The Antarctic Problem. From his vantage point of the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, Hunter Christie was well placed to record the growing agitation surrounding the overlapping claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, this Antarctic agitation sat uneasily with a growing British dependence on Argentine meat supplies in a post-war period of rationing. UK economic interests in Argentina were also under scrutiny by nationalist governments in Argentina, especially under the leadership of Juan Domingo Perón.

All three countries were entrenching their Antarctic claims within public culture by commemorating, educating, drawing, and studying the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. In Argentina and Chile, a new generation of citizens was weaned on new geography textbooks detailing how Antarctic territories were geographically and geologically connected to South America. Just as the 19th century witnessed patriotic forms of education in South America, post-war Argentines and Chileans were learning that their countries did not stop at the southern point of the South American continent. In contrast, a generation of British school children (as a special treat) got to see John Mills star as Robert Falcon Scott in Ealing Studios’ Scott of the Antarctic (1948) in the cinema. In their varying ways, children in three different countries were learning that the Antarctic was part of their national experience, either as integral territory or as a staging ground for national interests and values.

Frustrated by this continuing and expensive ‘Antarctic Problem’, the United Kingdom submitted an application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in May 1955 asking ‘the Court to recognise the validity of its titles to sovereignty and to declare that the pretentions of Argentina and Chile, as well as their encroachments in those territories, are contrary to international law’. The territories in this case referred to all British territories south of 50th parallel of south latitude. The application never attracted the involvement of the counter-claimants because both reject sea ice extenten Peninsulaed the need to have their ‘claims’ tested by an international court. If they had participated, then they would have been obliged to abide by any ICJ judgment. With no judgment, the ‘Antarctic Problem’ persisted, with all three countries devoting resources to the protection, and indeed enhancement, of their respective territories. Argentina, in particular, was a polar superpower dispatching icebreakers, planes, and personnel to the Antarctic Peninsula. Argentine officials took great pleasure in sending updated maps of the Argentine Antarctic Territory to British administrators which highlighted their surveying achievements. The ICJ application was only one element in the contested sovereignty of the Antarctic. The United States, having renewed its Antarctic commitments and interests in the late 1940s, assembled a decisive presence. On the back of a new generation of US Navy-led expeditions, State Department officials explored governance options with the polar G7 (the claimant states). Given the intra-gang rivalries, any proposal to alter the status quo was likely to encounter hostility at worst and indifference at best.

Mindful of the potential to make a substantial claim to the Antarctic, a proposal for a condominium was carefully considered by the claimants in 1948. Within such a condominium, the United States hoped to achieve three things. First, to ensure that its rights and interests were preserved across the entire polar continent as well as protecting navigation rights/rights of innocent passage around the Southern Ocean. Second, successive US governments were concerned about the unresolved tension between Britain, Argentina, and Chile. From the US perspective, three Cold War allies locked into an increasingly bitter dispute over ownership with no sign that any of those parties were willing to ‘pull out’ of the Antarctic made no sense. Finally, it was hoped that other parties, especially the Soviet Union, might be discouraged from playing a more prominent role in the Antarctic if affairs of state appeared benign. In other words, the US was prepared to deal with the seven claimants in the hope that they could shut down the Antarctic politically. This proposed management strategy failed. It assumed that the Soviet Union was preoccupied with its vast Arctic region. The return of whaling fleets coupled with the promotion work of Soviet geographers scuppered the plan. Sensing growing Soviet interest, the American and British media foretold of a new ‘scramble for Antarctica’. By 1950, Soviet officials asserted their historic and geographical interest in the Antarctic, and publicly refuted the validity of any territorial claims to the Antarctic. As with the United States, the USSR adopted a non-recognition policy while reserving the right to press a claim in the future. The subsequent investment in scientific initiatives fitted a broader pattern of both countries being avowedly anti-imperial, while at the same time supporting proposals that ensured that their influence (and mobility in the case of the Antarctic) was at best enhanced and, at very worst, untouched.

Indirectly, perhaps, a proposal put forward in 1950 by a group of geophysicists for a new international polar year (the International Geophysical Year, IGY) was a timely intervention. Polar science offered a powerful platform for geopolitical advantage, and just as the British utilized it in the 1920s and 1930s, claims could be made to be advancing ‘environmental authority’ and material interests simultaneously. Big science provided opportunities for both colonization/sovereignty games, and paradoxically perhaps, shared ownership.


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(3) Antartic

Antarctica - extreme environmental tourism

Antarctic tourism

Antarctic Sea Ice Reaches New Record Maximum


After the Heroic Age (1918-1940)

After the Scott–Amundsen saga, there were no further journeys to the South Pole until the 1950s. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914) floundered due to his ship Endurance being trapped in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea. Considered to be the last expedition of the Heroic Age, it was notable for its feats of ‘endurance’ rather than the planned trans-continental trek. Beset by ice in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his party of 28 men were stranded on the pack ice in the winter season of 1915. Their ship sunk after being crushed by the ice, and the men had to endure the Antarctic winter in a series of makeshift camps, surviving on remaining food stores and captured animals. Shackleton took a decision to use the lifeboats in order to journey to Elephant Island to the north of the Weddell Sea. He left the bulk of the expedition there and, together with his five companions, sailed 800 nautical miles in an open boat (the James Baird) to South Georgia. Once there, they clambered over the mountains and reached a Norwegian whaling community. The remaining men were eventually rescued, without any loss of life. This remains one of the ‘greatest escapes’ from the Antarctic.

European- and North American-sponsored Antarctic exploration, after the hiatus caused by the First World War, resumed with new interventions in ship-based, and more notably air-based, discovery. For others such as Argentina, their personnel continued to occupy a research station in the South Shetlands, and had done so continuously since 1904 after being bequeathed the base by the Scots explorer William Bruce. By way of contrast, the British invented a ‘Discovery Committee’ to explicitly strengthen imperial control over the Antarctic via polar science.

Established in 1923, as a result of a recommendation by the Departmental Committee on Research and Development for the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID), the committee was charged with two inter-related tasks. First, to provide accurate and up-to-date maps and charts of the FID; and second, to assist the whaling industry with the collection of information regarding stock size and meteorology so that it could manage whaling rather than being primarily an aid to the whalers themselves. Given that whaling licenses were an invaluable source of income to the FID, it was in the interest of the British government as well as the industry to ensure its longer-term sustainability. The net result was to encourage a series of survey voyages designed to study the oceanography of the Southern Ocean. During this period, the polar continent was circumnavigated, and extensive mapping was carried out around the scattered islands of South Georgia, the South Orkneys, and the South Shetlands. This was Britain’s ‘South Atlantic Empire’.

At the same time as the British authorities were generating information about British Antarctic waters and their major inhabitant, the whale, there was also a co-ordinate, if modestly funded, push to consolidate geographical discovery in other parts of the imperial Antarctic. Science, exploration, and empire were again being brought together to invoke, on the one hand, imperial authority and, on the other hand, a form of ‘environmental authority’, which entailed British administrators managing the marine life of the Southern Ocean for the benefit of humankind.

Flying over the Antarctic

While ships and sledges dominated the first hundred years of Antarctic exploration and discovery, the introduction of the aero plane (and later the helicopter) was significant. The flight path began to supplement the sledge track. In November 1928, the Australian aviator Hubert Wilkins introduced the aircraft into Antarctic Peninsula exploration. Armed with a newspaper deal from William Randolph Hearst, Wilkins took a Lockheed Vega monoplane equipped with pontoons to the Antarctic, and created an improvised landing strip at Deception Island. On 20 December 1928, Wilkins flew for 11 hours across the Antarctic Peninsula, covering some 1,600 miles and travelling below 71°S. Recalling his land-based struggles as a young polar explorer, he reveled in what the plane offered: ‘I had a tremendous feeling of power and freedom – I felt liberated. For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air.’

Within five years, planes and pilots were being deployed in other expeditions involving Douglas Mawson and the Norwegian Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who each laid the groundwork for their respective national territorial claims. The American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth made multiple expeditions between 1933 and 1939, including the first flight across the Antarctic. A contemporary of his, Admiral Richard Byrd, played his part in utilizing the aircraft to considerable effect with regard to exploration.

Byrd, after establishing a base (Little America) at the Bay of Whales in January 1929, used his Ford tri-motor aircraft, the Floyd Bennett, to undertake the first ever flight to the South Pole. In November 1929, the pilot and passengers reached the spot where Amundsen and Scott had visited nearly 20 years earlier. As Byrd noted, ‘There was nothing now to mark that scene; only a white desolation and solitude disturbed by the sound of our engines.’ With favorable flying weather, the plane could conduct extensive reconnaissance flights, and explore vast swathes of previously unsighted territory.

It could and did eclipse the achievements of land-based expeditions, and a new generation of polar explorers were being fêted for their aeronautical endurance as opposed their handling of snow and dogs. The Antarctic map was transformed again, as new geographical features were identified from the air, and subsequently named after explorers and sponsors alike.

The British Graham Land Expedition (1934-1937), under the leadership of John Rymill, used aircraft to help demonstrate that the Antarctic Peninsula was physically connected to the rest of the polar continent. Using a De Havilland Fox Moth reconnaissance plane, equipped with floats and skis, the team explored the southern Antarctic Peninsula region, which was poorly mapped and barely visited in comparison to the northern tip. Twenty years later, the British government invested in the aerial mapping of the Peninsula region via the Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE, 1955-1957), which was carried out by the Hunting Aero surveys. Canso planes, imported from Arctic Canada, were used to continue the mapping and surveying of British Antarctic territories, and helicopters played a critical role in ferrying surveyors around the targeted areas.

The impact of the aero plane in terms of Antarctic exploration was mixed. On the one hand, the plane and the pilot became a powerful expression of the modern age of exploration. Unlike the foot-slogging Edwardian explorer, the pilot could soar over the polar interior and coastline, sighting thousands of square miles of territory. The plane was an instrument of geopolitical power. British, American, and German pilots played their part in projecting the ambitions of their sponsoring states, even aiding and abetting the aerial colonization of the Antarctic by throwing flags out of the aero plane window. And if German forces had prevailed during the Second World War, then perhaps the aerial exploits of the Neu-Schwabenland expedition would have been more strongly commemorated on the Antarctic map.

On the other hand, flights could be disrupted by bad weather, poor landing options, and costly operation. The FIDASE remains a case in point, as a project beset with difficulties regarding cloud cover, fog, mist, freezing instruments, and gusting winds. Pilots and their planes were frequently grounded during the short summer season, and at least one helicopter was lost due to violent downdrafts. So flying and hovering were no panacea, and any mapping that was going to emerge in the aftermath needed reliable ground control. The plane and the pilot did not replace the land-based explorer and surveyor, all remaining dependent on ship-based support because the distances to be covered were still immense, and search-and-rescue facilities were non-existent.

Mega-discovery and permanent occupation (1940-1958) The Second World War created an exploratory impasse. Yet, even in the midst of the war, Argentine and British parties were exploring, mapping, and claiming Antarctic territories. In the post-1945 period, one dominant trend in Antarctic exploration was scale and permanency. New investment, provoked in part by explicit geopolitical agendas, led to a tranche of research stations and huts being established across the polar continent. The role of the armed forces was also notable. The Argentine and US navies were active in the logistical support of expeditions and the establishment of permanent infrastructure in the Antarctic; although in the case of Argentina, this was merely reinforcing their established permanent presence, dating from 1904. As in earlier times, hybrid expeditions, such as the one led by the American explorer Finn Ronne, carried out extensive aerial reconnaissance of the Ross Dependency, Australian Antarctic Territory, Dronning Maud Land, and Marie Byrd Land at the same time as the US Navy was completing naval operations High Jump and Wind Mill. Expeditions were, in this period, ambitious in scope and scale - 4,000 men and 12 gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized. The second noticeable trend was cooperation. While there was geopolitical competition in the disputed Antarctic Peninsula involving rival claimants Argentina, Chile, and the UK, there was also collaboration. In 1949, the Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition (NBSX) introduced the world to the first multi-national example of such cooperation in the Antarctic. For two seasons, the parties attached to the NBSX carried out air surveys of Dronning Maud Land and significant glaciological research on the Antarctic’s ice sheets. Following in the footsteps of that venture was the private Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955–8) led by Vivian Fuchs, and the conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, involving Australian, British, New Zealand, and South African personnel. Billed as a Commonwealth enterprise combining exploration with serious science, the team used motorized tractors to cross the Antarctic continent and thus complete a journey planned by British explorers some 40 years earlier. Unfortunately for the organizers, notwithstanding the successful completion of the crossing in March 1958, the expedition is remembered as much for the public falling out between Fuchs and Hillary over the nature of the crossing. A regrettable ending to a journey encompassing 2,180 miles and completed within 99 days.

Collaboration and cooperation were here to stay in the context of Antarctic exploration and investigation. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the Americans and New Zealanders jointly administered Hallett station. The United States also worked with Argentina and Australia, two large claimant states, in manning Wilkes and Ellsworth stations, respectively. Results were shared more readily within and beyond the scientific community, and all IGY parties accepted, albeit sometimes grudgingly, that the Antarctic was now a place of shared endeavor and enterprise. The third trend was visualization. Ever since the earliest explorers, the Antarctic had been recorded in a variety of ways, especially by photography and film-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Aerial photos were, in the period between the 1930s and 1950s, vital to expeditions as proof that the polar continent and surrounding ocean were being explored, mapped, and potentially administered. Getting the photographs published and publicized was a priority for publicly and privately funded expeditions alike. Expedition leaders were expected to write articles, books, and newspaper stories highlighting their achievements to domestic and international audiences. Until somewhat eclipsed by space exploration, the Antarctic was as remote as the Moon for most people, barely visited and barely understood.

The final trend worth noting is the Cold War itself. Exploration and discovery became increasingly politicized in the 1940s and 1950s, especially when the Soviet Union resumed its interest in the Antarctic. The claimant states, including the United Kingdom and the largest of the group of seven, Australia, had to come to terms with the fact that previous episodes of exploration and discovery did not guarantee claims to ownership. The decision of the Soviet Union to re-activate its Antarctic interests in the run-up to the IGY effectively ensured the unsettling of the territorial status quo. In January 1958, recognizing that the Soviet Union gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized.

Gendering discovery (c. 18th century onwards)

Thus far, all the acts of discovery carried out in the Antarctic were by men, and in the main, men from the Euro-American world. In her delightful short story Sur, the American writer Ursula Le Guin constructs a counter-factual history of Antarctica. She posits the idea that the South Pole was actually discovered by a group of South American grandmothers who arrive some months before any male explorers, including Amundsen and Scott. Their voyage is not premised on conquest, national prestige, and/or a race to some geographical point. In so doing, she reminds us that the histories of Antarctic discovery and exploration are gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized. The Antarctic performs as a kind of fantasy space for white European men, in particular, to perform ‘firsts’ and record their ‘achievements’ in the name of national and individual power. In The Left Hand of Darkness, involving a black man and an androgynous extra-terrestrial pulling Scott’s sledge across a planet called ‘winter’, Le Guin asks us to mull over what difference it might make to the history of polar exploration if the protagonists were not assumed to be white, male, and, almost certainly, heterosexual.

Women were not encouraged for a variety of reasons, including a perceived lack of physical endurance. Expedition leaders and their managers also expressed concern that women might unsettle the routine of base life and expect separate sleeping and toilet facilities. The routine and rhythm of the intensely homo-social life of the Antarctic base faced a gendered assault. The first woman, Caroline Mikkelsen, did not set foot on the Antarctic until February 1935, and only did so because she was the partner of a Norwegian captain in command of a whaling vessel. The first women to winter over in the Antarctic were Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington who spent a year (1947-1948) in the Antarctic Peninsula with their husbands, as part of the privately organized Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. In October 1957, two Pan-American Airlines flight attendants, Patricia Hepinstall and Ruth Kelly, working on a commercial flight over the Antarctic, landed at McMurdo Base. In 1960-1961, the accomplished Australian artist Nel Law accompanied her husband Philip Law to Antarctica. The opportunities for women to discover the Antarctic were limited, however, and would remain so for decades.

When Ernest Shackleton was asked about the possible participation of women, he replied that there were ‘no vacancies for the opposite sex on the Expedition’. His view was in no way unique or unusual. If there was an accompanying ideology to polar exploration, it was informed as much by gender as it was by geopolitics, science, and empire. While men may have performed gendered tasks such as cleaning and cooking within research stations and huts, they did so safe in the knowledge that everyone took their turns away from the gaze of any women – thus avoiding emasculation of sorts. And only the British, as far as I know, relished a cross-dressing party during the winter solstice – having female colleagues watching would, I suspect, have made said participants look a little silly. By way of contrast, Norwegian expeditions had designated cooks, and did not pack women’s clothing in their knaps acts of exploration and discoveries government attacks. Or so I have been told.

Nonetheless, women performed a variety of roles in the context of the Antarctic. While they have been physically absent from the discovery process, their presence was invoked when men were planting flags, issuing proclamations, constructing bases, and carrying out exploratory activities (claimant labour, in other words). Vast tracts of land were named after women – Marie Byrd Land, Queen Mary Land, and Mount Caroline Mikkelsen. These names were submitted and approved by all-male bodies such as the US Board on Geographic Names. Women worked for government departments and organizations responsible for exploration and discovery, and later scientific programmes. In February 1999, I had the pleasure of meeting Dame Margaret Anstee, who started her career in the late 1940s in the Foreign Office working for the chief polar advisor, Dr Brian Roberts. Dame Margaret finally got to visit the Antarctic some 50 years later as a passenger on a cruise ship, after being told by her employer the Foreign Office that she was not allowed to go. More recently, Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women down to their bases in order to strengthen their genealogical connections to the polar continent.

Scientifically, women began to make their presence felt from the 1950s onwards after overcoming prejudice and sexism within both civilian and military organizations. Women had to overcome sexist assumptions about their ability to cope with the ice, base life, and the last male bastion – the overwintering period. But progress was slow. In 1956, a Russian marine biologist, Maria Klenova, worked in the summer station of Mirny, and, a decade later, the US finally allowed women to participate in their national programme. Women finally reached the South Pole in 1969, some fifty-odd years after men, and in the year when other men were landing on the Moon. In the 1970s, another first was achieved, this time involving the first women scientists to winter over, as part of the American Antarctic programme. It was not until the early 1990s, by way of contrast, that the British Antarctic Survey allowed women to over-winter at their stations.

The role of women in the history of Antarctic discovery remains ambivalent. On the one hand, men have dominated the Antarctic’s occupation and settlement as well as exploration. Women have frequently had to battle against gendered assumptions about their suitability. On the other hand, women have been used symbolically and physically to explore, colonize, and settle the Antarctic. Women and their Antarctic children have been used for geopolitical purposes to cement national claims to territory. Both men and women, in their different ways, performed gendered service to states and sponsors. Notwithstanding the presence of women as scientists and tourists, the fact remains that men fundamentally shape the history of Antarctic exploration and engagement, those men mainly white and hailing from the Euro-American world. So there is also a racial dimension to this history of exploration. This is changing. Non-white men and a diversity of women from the global South are beginning to make their presence felt, mimicking, challenging, and extending previous acts of exploration and discovery.

Contemporary discoveries

While explorers discovered Antarctica in the sense of bringing it into systems of knowledge – such as maps (geological as well as cartographical) – it is worth also thinking of tourism as a form of discovery, this time personal rather than universal. Not mentioned in the text of the Antarctic Treaty, the omission was not surprising given that the first commercial visit occurred only in 1956 via an over-flight, and in 1957 when a Pan-American Airways aircraft landed at McMurdo Sound.  Within a decade of the Treaty’s signing, however, ship-based cruises had become routine, usually involving yachts, even if overall numbers remained modest. Between the 1950s and 1970s, fewer than 1,000 tourists a year visited the Antarctic. Numbers began to increase in the 1980s and 1990s, with figures exceeding 5,000, and then most notably in the last decade, the figures exceeded 20,000 and peaked at 35,000-40,000 at the height of the tourist boom in the 1990s and 2000s.

Following the onset of the financial crisis (c. 2008), the numbers declined somewhat to around 37,000 in 2009–10, with the vast majority voyaging by ship around the Antarctic Peninsula region, for reasons of relative proximity and cost. Many of the visitors have been women, and increasingly numbers have come from outside Europe and North America. The tourism industry has drawn both on memories of past exploration (‘In the footsteps of Scott and Shackleton’) and contemporary interest in the fate of wilderness regions such as the Antarctic (a kind of disaster tourism - see it before it disappears) to dispatch far more people to the Antarctic than was possible in the years preceding the advent of the first commercial over-flight. The predominantly ship based industry was further enhanced by the post-Cold War release of former Soviet icebreakers, which had previously worked in the Arctic region. My first visit to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1997 was on board a former Soviet Union icebreaker departing from the port of Ushuaia with only 40 passengers.

The largest ships involved in Antarctic tourism, by way of contrast, were the Princess Cruise Line’s Golden Princess and Star Princess, carrying more than 3,500 passengers, with more limited opportunities for actually leaving the ships once in the Antarctic. However, the tourism industry in the Antarctic is a dynamic one. It is no longer accurately characterized as merely ship-based, with some over-flight activity. If you have the necessary resources, it is now possible to mountaineer, ski, parachute, and kayak in the Antarctic. There are far more operators compared to the early 1990s when seven operators helped to create the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). By 2010-2011, over 100 companies are participating, with responsibility for thousands of people sailing, landing, and flying around, in, and over the polar continent and surrounding ocean. While not all the visitors land in the Antarctic, about27,000–28,000 people do each year. The overall value of the sector is estimated to be about US$40–50 million per year.

Discovering the Antarctic in this fashion does have costs and implications. While tourism does generate revenue for research stations selling stamps and souvenirs and can be used to help fund conservation initiatives, it can also lead to concerns about contamination of particular sites, the accidental introduction of non-indigenous species, the degradation of habitats, disruption of animal breeding, and search-and-rescue-related emergencies. In and around the Antarctic Peninsula, the twenty most popular sites are being monitored, and the sinking of the tourist-carrying MV Explorer in 2007 reminded the industry that accidents do happen when you ‘follow in the footsteps’ of past explorers (fortunately without loss of life on this occasion). The crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 in November 1979, which led to 257 people perishing when the plane struck Mount Erebus during an over-flight, remains a reminder that such activities are not risk-free. The cumulative impact of all kinds of tourism, including smaller tailor-made trips to remoter parts of the Antarctic, is still be determined, and is difficult to ascertain given its diverse nature, albeit concentrated in the summer season.

Some members of the scientific community complain that tourism interferes with the conduct of scientific research, and can be a distraction for staff attached to research stations. Critics, however, point out that tourism in the 1980s played a powerful role in forcing scientists to improve their environmental behaviour in and around research stations. Tourists discovered that open-air burning of waste was carried out at some research stations. With the entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection in 1998, Consultative Members, in consultation with IAATO, have worked to create guidelines and provisions regarding insurance, contingency planning, responsible behaviour in Antarctica, and the like. Enforcing guidelines is problematic given the contested sovereignty of Antarctica and the multi-national nature of the industry itself. Tour operators working in the Antarctic do not have to be members of IAATO, and concerns have been expressed that tour operators eager to provide their clients with ever more dramatic and extraordinary experiences will push to offer new ‘discoveries’ off the established routes of ship-based tourism in particular. As with skiing, there is an incentive to go off-piste, especially when faced with a situation in which you might have several ships literally taking turns to visit popular sites in the Antarctic Peninsula. Tracking and tracing vessels, in  sometimes poorly mapped Antarctic waters, represents a considerable challenge made worse by commercial pressures to offer, as we noted, a unique experience. A new mandatory international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters, which might take effect in 2013, should address some outstanding concerns relating to ship safety, training, and safety equipment.

The continued discovery of Antarctica by tourists is an important element in the wider human encounter with the polar continent and surrounding ocean. There have been shipping-related accidents, and if the sector continues to expand post-financial crisis, then pressure will mount for further action regarding regulation. But we should also remember that tourism, whether invoking discovery or not, is economically and politically significant. Claimant states, especially those possessing gateway ports in Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands, Australia, and New Zealand, benefit from this industry. Tourists spend money in these places as well as on the boats and planes plying up and down to Antarctica. Politically, port state jurisdiction and the control of tourist activity help to cement a de facto authority over Antarctic territories. Argentina, Australia, and Chile have all discussed further land-based facilities such as hotels and the way in which this infrastructure provides opportunities to cement sovereign authority and make money. 

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(2) Antartic


Life on the Antarctic Ice


Life in the Antarctic

With no indigenous human population, Antarctica is unique. But we should not assume this was always well understood. One insightful vignette comes from Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish expedition (1901-1904), when the soot-covered men from a lost party were at first thought to be Antarctic natives until their colleagues recognized them. The idea that soot-covered men were judged to be indigenous is a great deal en Peninsula ling, but perhaps they had read fictional novels such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Poe speculates about the existence of black natives residing at the South Pole, and they eventually slaughter all but two of the American expedition who encountered them. Poe was not the only one to speculate that there might be secret and long-lost civilizations residing in the Antarctic awaiting discovery and encounter. Subterranean fiction, more generally, proved adept at representing the Polar Regions as entry points into a hollow Earth brimming with settlement possibilities.

In reality, the first semi-permanent human inhabitants were British and American sealers who lived on South Georgia from the late 18th century onwards. For the next 200 years, whalers and sealers, many of them Norwegian, made their home there, and hunted in the waters of the South West Atlantic. Today, governments maintain research stations, and historic huts and stores offer reminders of past and present encounters. The number of people residing on the polar continent and outlying islands varies with the summer and winter seasons. During the summer season (October–March), the numbers of scientists, and support and logistical staff, increase, up to 5,000. In the winter months, this number decreases to around 1,000 as most depart before the onset of the winter weather. The first ‘indigenous’ child born south of the 60° parallel was an Argentine boy called Emilio Marcos Palma, in 1978, at a research station located on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. His parents, along with some other families, had been sent by the Argentine government, to cement the Argentine claim to this particular part of the Antarctic. Since that period, more than ten children have been born in Antarctica in the Argentine and Chilean bases of Esperanza and Frei Montalva respectively. Apart from the scientific community (and the military and naval personnel either living on bases or patrolling on ships) who enjoy a semi-permanent status in the Antarctic; the main inhabitants are marine and terrestrial life. Given the relatively recent isolation from other continents, and with less than 1% of land surface free of permanent snow and ice, plant communities are limited in number and scope compared to, say, a hundred million years ago. Freezing temperatures, modest soil quality, low rainfall, and a general lack of sunlight for six or more months do not represent ideal growing conditions. But plant and microbe species exist, nonetheless. It is estimated that there are something like 200 species of lichen, over 100 species of mosses and liverworts, 30 species of macro-fungi, and a profusion of algae. The short summer season is key, and even flowering plants are to be found in the milder Antarctic Peninsula. There is much research on the manner in which these species became established and indeed survived the harsh and isolated conditions in and around the polar continent. Given the limited opportunities for photosynthesis and access to water, some plant life may be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, with very slow rates of growth and reproduction. One of the most remarkable environments within the Antarctic where evidence of life has been found is the so-called Dry Valleys, which are located on the border between East and West Antarctica. The three valleys, named Victoria, Wright, and Taylor, encompass some 3,000 square kilometers and are unique in the sense that there is no ice or water to be found. It was once thought that rain had not fallen for at least two million years, but scientists recorded some precipitation in 1959, 1968, 1970, and 1974. The Dry Valleys were created when the terrain was uplifted in a manner whereby it actually exceeded the capacity of glaciers to cut a path through, and eventually the glaciers simply r a great deal en Peninsula ceded. When Robert Scott and his party first encountered them, they observed, ‘It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.’ Latter-day scientists discovered that Scott and his party were a touch premature, even though it must have been easy to imagine that nothing would survive this vast, arid, desolate place. In the 1970s, algae, bacteria, and fungi were found to be living inside the rocks scattered around the Dry Valleys. Some of these plants may date from around 200,000 years ago and survive because the rock protects the organisms from drying while at the same time enabling some moisture and light to permeate the rocks. Evidence   of life has also been discovered in some of the lakes situated within the Dry Valleys, including Lake Hoare, where algae is to be found on the bottom of the lake itself. One major concern for those who study the microbes of the Dry Valleys is human disturbance, as the fragile rock and soil ecosystems are extremely vulnerable, and further change may occur if alien species and soils introduced from other continents enter the Antarctic and cross-contaminate. Sub-glacial lakes represent another extraordinary environment within the Antarctic that might contain evidence of life. These lakes are located underneath large ice sheets. Over 150 have been identified by scientists and owe their origin to localized melting, pressure points, and geothermal heating from the earth. While ongoing research does not expect to uncover evidence of larger creatures, there may well be microbes within these sub-glacial lakes that endure an environment in which there is no light, extraordinary pressures due to the weight of the ice sheet, and temperatures that are always below zero. Sediments on the bottom of the lake might provide a food resource for such microbes. Studying these environments is an immense challenge, especially as scientists are eager to avoid any cross contamination. When considering the water and aerial environments, the presence of birds, seals, penguins, whales, fish, and smaller creatures such as krill is noteworthy. The Southern Ocean is immensely rich in micro-organisms such as algae and plankton and contains the coldest and densest water in the world. Consequently, more oxygen is dissolved in the sea and currents help to bring nutrients from the seabed to the surface. The surface-level algae provide food for shrimp-like krill, which in turn provide nourishment for fish, seals, whales, and birds. A marine food chain enables a reproductive cycle maintained by interdependent species. The marine ecosystem in the waters surrounding the Antarctic is comparatively simple but at the same time varied, given the life forms also found on the bottom of the ocean and sea floor such as sponges, star fish, and the like. The bird life found in the Antarctic includes penguins and albatrosses. The penguin family includes the Adélie, Chinstrap, King, Emperor, Gentoo, Macaroni, Rockhopper, and Royal Penguin. Thanks to films such as The March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, many readers will be familiar with the Emperor Penguin, which is the largest member of the penguin family and the only one to breed on the Antarctic continent during the winter season. An adult Emperor can stand over 1 meter tall and weigh 40 kilograms and towers above the diminutive Rockhopper. Other birds include petrels, terns, skuas, and the famous albatross family, including the Amsterdam, Black-Browed, Grey-Headed, Royal, and Shyqongovernment and Wandering varieties. The Wandering Albatross, associated with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is the bird of the Southern Ocean. It is truly majestic to watch as its 3.5-metre wingspan allows it to gracefully float above the sea. It is estimated that there may be around 20,000 breeding pairs scattered around the islands of the Southern Ocean such as South Georgia.

However, concern has been expressed that fishing activities are having a deleterious effect on the albatross due to so-called long line fishing, whereby the birds are caught up in fishing lines and subsequently drown. Like the penguin family, krill and fish are vital elements in the diets of lbatross. Some albatross can remain at sea for years, and thus never land until breeding. Seals are a major element in the Southern Ocean and, despite being subject to intense rounds of resource exploitation alongside whales, are to be found in sizeable numbers. The species include the Fur, Crab eater, Leopard, Ross, Southern Elephant, and Weddell. While they vary in size and breeding characteristics, the Leopard Seal enjoys a formidable reputation. Adults can be over 3 meters long and weigh some 400-500 kilograms. They are largely solitary creatures, living as they do around the pack ice in the summer and sub-Antarctic islands in the winter. They eat penguins as well as other seals’ pups and also fish. Some 200,000 Leopard Seals are believed to exist within the Antarctic. Under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), formerly hunted seals such as the Ross and Fur varieties are now afforded protection. Whales make the Southern Ocean a seasonal home, and were hunted in great numbers, especially in the first part of the 20th century. The Blue, Fin, Humpback, Killer, Minke, Sei, Southern Right, and Sperm varieties feed and breed in and around the Antarctic. The summer population of the Orca (Killer Whale) may exceed 80,000, and this distinctive creature with its black and white markings and tall dorsal fin was last commercially harvested in 1979-1980. Other whales such as the Humpback, Blue, and Southern Right were also targeted for exploitation. The Southern Right, a slow-moving and inshore visiting species, was ‘right’ because it was relatively easy to kill and helpfully remained afloat once slaughtered. Oil could then be exploited in sizeable quantities, especially given that an adult Southern Right could exceed 17 meters and weigh in the region of 80–90 tons. In the mid-19th century, whalers targeted this whale and continued to do so for another hundred years. The politics of whaling is controversial as rival states continue to argue over conservation and scientific research measures.

The Southern Ocean contains more than 250 species of fish. These include some fish such as the Antarctic Ice Fish that possess an ability to survive sub-zero temperatures by producing anti-freeze glycopeptides in their blood. Other fish such as the Patagonian Tooth fish have grabbed the headlines in recent years due to their intense commercial exploitation. This fish is found in cold temperate waters of the Southern Ocean, especially on seamounts and continental shelves around the sub-Antarctic islands such as Prince Edward and South Georgia. Patagonian Toothfish are slow-growing, but an adult can weigh about 10 kilograms, and mature varieties might exceed 100 kilograms. They can survive for up to 50 years and have been sold worldwide under a variety of labels such as the Chilean Sea Bass and Mero. Tooth fish feed on krill, squid, and smaller fish. Finally, we must recognize the humble 5–6-centimetre-long krill, a shrimp-like marine crustacean.

Krill feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, and their collective estimated biomass is thought to be around 500,000,000 tons. Krill is food for whales, seals, penguins, squid a great deal en Peninsula, and fish, as it migrates up and down the water column. Commercially, krill harvesting is carried out in the Southern Ocean, and something like 150,000 to 200,000 tons is harvested annually, mainly around the Scotia Sea. Krill is used in aquaculture, pharmaceuticals, and in sport fishing as bait. Japanese and Russian consumers also eat krill, but the volume consumed has declined since the 1980s and 1990s. At their peak, something in the order of 400,000 tons of krill was harvested in the summer season. Conservation measures were put in place in the early 1990s in order to stabilize the total catch after fears were expressed that this was another living resource being over-exploited by fishing vessels registered to the former Soviet Union and Japan. The latter remains the most important exponent of krill harvesting both in the Southern Ocean and the waters around Japan. The geological and biological characteristics of the Antarctic are important to grasp. Antarctica’s historical evolution is one fundamentally shaped by mobility not rootedness. Rather than being remote and isolated, scientists have over the last hundred years demonstrated that the Antarctic is intimately connected to a series of physical systems including the atmosphere, geology, sea level, and the evolution of planet Earth and the solar system. One example that relates well this sense of interconnectivity is the discovery of meteorites in the Antarctic. The first meteorites were discovered in 1912, and since then more have been discovered in a variety of locations. Some 25,000 discovered specimens are helping us to better understand the creation and evolution of the solar system. The Allan Hills region is particularly fecund because it is an area in which old ice is to be found, held back by the mountains and kept snow-free by constant winds. These areas, in other words, gradually end up revealing their meteorite hoards. Many others simply drift out towards the Southern Ocean as ice sheets calve into icebergs.

The Antarctic meteorites are well preserved, and this collection of samples has been used by scientists to consider how bits of the Moon, and even Mars, may have ended up in Antarctica, after asteroids and comets impacted on those celestial bodies. One of the most famous is the ALH84001 meteorite, a Martian rock, which has been linked by American scientists to possible evidence of ancient biological activity. Scientists attached to the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) programme demonstrated that the Antarctic provides a rich source for experimenting and contemplating the four billion-year-old solar system and the evolution of the planetary system. As John Carpenter’s fictional film The Thing (1982) postulated, extra-terrestrial life might have visited the Antarctic before us. Other writers and artists, including H. P. Lovecraft in his novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936), speculated on the existence of past civilizations and ancient life forms once residing in the Antarctic. The figure of the scientist, such as the fictional geologist William Dyer, is critical to making sense of evidence of past life.

The Antarctic is not the Arctic

The Antarctic is not the Arctic. The two Polar Regions are distinct, and are connected with one another only in certain ways such as the migratory patterns of wildlife and, in the case of the United Kingdom, a tendency to study ‘cold places’ comparatively. The creation of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in the 1920s is a case in point. In other parts of the world – Canada, for example – the idea that one would study the inhabited Arctic together with a region without an indigenous human population would be treated with skepticism, and even hostility.

In a literal sense, however, ‘the Antarctic’ owes its origins to the Greek word for the Arctic. The Ancient Greeks named the North Pole Arktos (the bear), and the region lying opposite was termed as the ‘Anti-Arctic’, or as we know it, the Antarctic. So, at least one further way to define the Antarctic is to invoke its geographical and literal opposite. Fundamentally, the Antarctic and the Arctic are very different kinds of spaces and places. The Antarctic consists of a pole-centered continent that is mountainous and ice-covered. An ocean surrounds it. The Arctic is a polar ocean basin, which is surrounded by land, including the Euro-Asian and North American continents. The Arctic is considerably warmer than the Antarctic because so much more of the region is at sea level rather than several kilometers above it.

Biologically, too, the Antarctic is quite different to the Arctic. Whereas four million people live in the Arctic region, there is no indigenous human population in the Antarctic. Flora and fauna generally are more isolated, and there is less evidence of trans-polar migration, at least of land-based organisms, though animals such as penguins, whales, and albatrosses do migrate over sizeable distances, even connecting the Arctic and Antarctic in terms of their migratory patterns. Economically and politically, the two Polar Regions are very different. The Arctic region is heavily exploited in terms of hydrocarbon commoditization alongside other forms of resource development, while the Antarctic is more limited to the realms of fishing and tourism. There is no timber sector in the Antarctic, for example. Politically, the Antarctic is governed by a treaty-based system, which prohibits all forms of mining, encourages science, and ensures that the region is demilitarized. The Protocol on Environmental Protection bans all forms of mining, even if quantities of coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, and uranium have been discovered. No one owns the Antarctic, and the international community does not recognize the seven claimant states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom). The Arctic, by way of contrast, continues to be militarized and governed by Arctic states such as Canada and Russia.

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) isTH-CENTURY BRITAIN

Discovering the Antarctic

Acts of discovery are never politically innocent. Even in the uninhabited Antarctic, Argentina, Britain, Russia, and the United States continue to stake their claims as discoverers. The UK-based Antarctic Place Names Committee reminds interested parties that, ‘The naming of places in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic goes back to 1775 when Capt. James Cook, RN, discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.’ So Britain, it is expected, should be considered primus inter pares when it comes to the discovery of the Antarctic.

States press their interests by publicizing discovery ‘firsts’, preserving historical huts, mobilizing memories of past explorers and their deeds, promoting contemporary tourism, and maintaining memorials (such as Lenin’s bust at the Russian-based Pole of Inaccessibility research station, and the Richard Byrd bust at the American McMurdo station). Antarctic discovery and exploration are profoundly gendered, radicalized, nationalized, and civilized. European and North American white men are lionized while women perform a distinctly subservient service through place names and/or providing ‘Antarctic babies’ for particular nationalist regimes. Non-white men are written out of the script. How many people know, for example, that the Maori Te Atu (who changed his name to John Sacs) travelled with the US Exploring Expedition in the early 1840s? For centuries, moreover, Maori believed that a white land lay to the south of contemporary New Zealand.

Initial European exploration and discovery

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European explorers and geographers were ruminating over the possible existence of a Terra Australis, a concept postulated as necessary since classical antiquity. European voyages around Africa demonstrated that this southerly territory was not attached to the African continent. Likewise, the voyages of Ferdinand Magellan in the 1520s, Sir Francis Drake, and the Dutch explorers Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten in the second half of the 16th century proved that it was not connected to the southern tip of South America. If there was another continent to be discovered, then it must reside somewhere in the poorly mapped Southern Ocean.

Although the English merchant Antonio de la Roche first discovered the island of South Georgia in 1675, the first landing was not actually made until 1775, when Captain James Cook claimed the territory for Great Britain, and named it after King George III. Cook’s voyages on board HMS Adventure and HMS Resolution aimed to survey and investigate the Southern Ocean. During the second voyage of 1773, Captain Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle and came within only 70 nautical miles of the Antarctic coastline, but were forced to turn around when confronted with unrelenting sea ice.

Cook’s Second Expedition of 1772–1775 was instrumental in accelerating exploration, and his report published in 1777, A Voyage towards the South Pole, revealed his geographical ambition. Venturing into the ice-filled Southern Ocean was not for the faint-hearted: Thick fogs. Snow storms. Intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous, one has to encounter and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of the country, a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sunrays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice. However, his observations about an abundant number of seals and whales played their part, perhaps unintentionally, in representing the Antarctic not as ‘doomed nature’ but as ‘plentiful nature’. This was to prove significant in triggering further discovery and exploitation of the Antarctic, and highlighted the importance of explorers, scientists, and sailors in bringing back their stories and images of this remote land to domestic audiences.

Antarctic sightings

The first generally recognized sighting of Antarctic land occurred in the 1820s. Three individuals and their ships have been credited with this particular geographical ‘first’, although the islands of South Shetland and the Antarctic Peninsula are likely to have been discovered earlier by anonymous sealers. During the boom years of seal hunting, geographical knowledge was commercially sensitive and not for free exchange. It is widely accepted that the actual accolade belongs to the Estonian-born Fabian von Bellingshausen, who reported land on 27 January 1820. His expedition, involving the ships Vostok and Mirnyy, circumnavigated the polar continent, and charted the ice shelf in the northerly portion of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Irish-born Edward Bransfield’s sighting, on 30 January 1820, of what was termed ‘Trinity Peninsula’ encouraged further reported sightings by sealers, including one Nathaniel Palmer and on his voyage in and around November 1820. It is sometimes claimed that another American sealer, John Davis, was the first to land on the polar continent in February 1821, but this is a matter of dispute amongst polar historians. The competing claims to priority have long been resources for nationalists, and continue to inform positions of the United Kingdom, United States, and Russia in relation to territorial sovereignty in the Antarctic to this day.

Sailors, scientists, and sealers contributed to the exploration and early mapping of the Antarctic Peninsula and outlying islands, many given names – like the South Shetlands and South Orkneys that evoked the land of their discoverers. The South Shetland Islands, again claimed on behalf of the British crown, were roughly charted. Invoking King George IV, Edward Bransfield took possession of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which was named Graham Land after the then First Lord of the Admiralty, James Graham. This was followed up by later exploratory voyages and what we might term ‘claimant labour’ by Henry Foster, John Biscoe, and in the 1840s, by James Clark Ross. The first three to four decades of the 19th century established a pattern of engagement with the Antarctic which proved remarkably persistent. Resources, research, and recognition proved durable bedfellows. The United States was a noteworthy player from the start of the 19th century, and the US Congress sanctioned a major initiative to improve commercial and scientific understanding of the Pacific Ocean, but also the southerly portions of the world’s major oceans. The United States Exploring Expedition (USEE) (1839-1942), organized by the US Navy, sailed from Australia to explore further the possible existence of a polar continent. Traversing the Antarctic Ocean, rather than the Southern Ocean as we now describe it, the expedition gave its name to Wilkes Land – a substantial chunk of what is now called East Antarctica. Charles Wilkes was one of the explorers connected to the USEE and later had the dubious honour of being charged with ‘immoral mapping’ in September 1842. The charge related to his involvement in the expedition, and his claim that he had sighted a ‘vast Antarctic continent’, protected reportedly by an ‘impenetrable barrier of ice’. Having in Buenos Aires Peninsula sighted, mapped, and named it ‘Wilkes Land’, he was later to be accused by the British explorer Sir James Clark Ross of cartographical deceit. Wilkes, it is believed, may have unintentionally been tricked by a cloud mass, which to all appearances looked like a landmass.

Whatever his cartographic merits, Wilkes’s naming of a portion of the polar continent remains his legacy on the Antarctic map, as do the nineteen published volumes of the expedition that contributed to the collection of objects and ideas by the newly established Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (1846).

The last blank spot on the map

The period between the 1840s and 1890s represents a hiatus in the exploration and discovery of Antarctica. Whalers and sealers continued to journey to the Southern Ocean, and landings and charting were carried out across the sub-Antarctic, including the Prince Edward Islands and Heard and Macquarie Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. With seals being depleted, the rationale for further investment was less clear-cut, and public attention in Europe and North America in particular was turning northwards towards the Arctic. This was only to change in the 1890s when fresh appeals were made for a new round of exploration. The 1895 International Geographical Congress in London was a pivotal event, as geographers and cartographers appealed for fresh information about one of the world’s remaining blank spaces. It was ‘the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken’. John Murray, the noted cartographer, put the appeal in the following terms in 1899: I always feel a little bit of shame that civilized man, living on his little planet – a very small globe - should, in this nineteenth century of the Christian era, not yet have fully explored the whole of this little area; it seems a reproach upon the enterprise, civilization, and condition of knowledge of the human race.

The resource value of the Antarctic also played a part in stimulating this swelling of interest in what Joseph Conrad termed a more ‘militant geography’. Over-exploitation of Fur Seals, which led to the 1893 Bering Sea arbitration and the decline of the Greenland whale fishery, focused attention on the Antarctic. At the moment when Frederick Jackson Turner was appealing for Americans to ‘close’ the American frontier, a coterie of explorers and exploiters descended on the Antarctic. Seven major expeditions were organized within the period between 1898 and the 1910s involving a multi-national cast of characters and sponsors. These included: the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–1899), the British Antarctic Expedition (1898–1900), the German Antarctic Expedition (1901–1903), the first expedition by Captain Robert Scott (the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904), the Swedish Polar Expedition (1901-1904), and the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904) led by William S. Bruce. The net result of this extraordinary burst of endeavour was to ensure that European and North American men were exploring ever-greater expanses of the polar continent and surrounding seas, and that Antarctica would become integrated in the Western imperial economic system through whaling and meteorological observations, to give just two of the most prominent examples.

Both public and private funding played critical roles in the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ (1898–1916) of Antarctic exploration. Some of the most notable explorers, such as the Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, were privately funded (even if his initial experience came from being a participant of the Discovery Expedition in 1901-1904). Shackleton led the Nimrod Expedition (1907–1909), funded by the Scottish industrialist Sir William Beardmore, and in January 1909, he and his three companions trekked across the polar continent and reached the furthest southerly point thus far achieved. At latitude 88°S, they were approximately 110 miles from the South Pole (the publicly disseminated figure of 97 miles was judged to have more of a dramatic ring to it). They also made the first ascent of Mount Erebus and claimed to have reached the South Magnetic Pole, though later evaluation showed the three-man party’s calculations were probably in error. King Edward VII knighted Shackleton for that extraordinary achievement, appropriately termed by fellow expedition member Frank Wild as ‘the great southern journey’. Famously, the decision to turn back from their final destination, the South Pole, was immortalized in the expedition account, The Heart of the Antarctic, as a decision based on a judgment that it was better to be ‘a live donkey than a dead lion’. These words were to acquire a prophetic quality.

The cumulative impact of this exploratory endeavour was mixed. On the one hand, these overwhelmingly European expeditions sponsored by a combination of industrialists, commercial companies, government departments, and academic societies led to ever greater areas of the Antarctic being visited, explored, and studied. On the other hand, the reported discoveries were of variable quality, with complaints that maps and charts were incomplete and irreconcilable. The physical geography of the Antarctic remained confusing and confused. As a consequence, there appeared to be plenty of new geographical milestones to strive for, none greater than the geographic pole.

Racing to the pole

Coinciding with the invention of the modern Olympics, the ‘race to the pole’ was driven by a combination of geopolitical, imaginative, and scientific ambition. Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909) played a notable role in alerting others to the glaciated geography of the interior. As Edward Larson notes in his book An Empire of Ice, men like Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and the Anglo-Australian Douglas Mawson were agents of the British Empire but they were also curious about the environments they encountered. This was also the case for other Europeans such as the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the German explorer/scientist Wilhelm Filchner. Amundsen’s Fram/South Pole Expedition (1910-1912), involving four sledges, up to 52 dogs, and five men, arrived at the South Pole on 14 December 1911, and named the Antarctic Plateau, King Haakon VII Plateau. About the same time, the Japanese Antarctic Expedition (1910-1912) led by Nobu Shirase encountered Amundsen’s ship the Fram, which was moored in the Bay of Whales. The Japanese party landed on the continent and journeyed towards the South Pole to reach 80°S, and carried out some exploration of King Edward VII Land. While the Norwegian foreign ministry never really used Amundsen’s claiming in a legal sense, it did give symbolic depth to Norway’s claims. Japan was forced to renounce any claims to polar territory in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), led by Robert Scott, aimed explicitly to be the first to reach the South Pole and enjoyed the strong support of the Royal Geographical Society. The Society’s president, Sir Clements Markham, was a major sponsor. Scott and his party reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, but discovered that the rival expedition led by Roald Amundsen had triumphed some 33 days earlier. Scott confided to his diary that, ‘The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.’

On their return journey, despite initially enjoying reasonable weather and decent progress, the five strong party encountered difficulties, including physical disintegration due to frostbite and malnutrition. Assailed by ferociously cold weather, sledging became akin to ‘pulling over desert sand’. With shortages of food and fuel, one member of the party, Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, sacrificed himself for the sake of the remaining three, after the early death of Evans. The final three, Scott, Wilson, and Bowers, trudged on and made it to 11 miles short of their main depot before a blizzard prevented further progress. Their bodies, journals, and other items, including rock specimens, were discovered some eight months later.

Scott’s diary dated 29 March 1912

Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people. As every British school child knows, or certainly did when I was growing up in the 1970s, the final Scott expedition, and while tragic, was also truly heroic. Whereas the Norwegians, familiar with the demands of the high latitudes, used dogs and seasoned Arctic clothing, Scott stood accused by his critics, sometime after his untimely demise, of being too rooted in inappropriate strategies such as man-hauling and a commitment to scientific investigation. Damningly, for some at least, his party even at their darkest hour never jettisoned their interest in scientific investigation. Antarctic science, while in its infancy, was a powerful spur to further exploration, and Scott’s party were interested in terrestrial magnetism, oceanography, geology, and palaeontology. Other members of Scott’s expedition made extensive journeys for geological and ornithological purposes, one party enduring - 70°C for the sake of collecting geological specimens and/or retrieving Emperor Penguin eggs. While an egg hunt may sound absurd, given it was not Easter and they were not made of chocolate, the penguin eggs were contributing to scientific debates about global evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was read avidly by Scott’s party, and as one member, Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, noted, ‘We were witnessing a marvel of the natural world. We had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science; we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made.’

The legacy of the Scott e in Buenos Aires en Peninsula expedition was profound. Scientifically, the Terra Nova Expedition with its multiple parties, including the less well-known Northern Party and Western geological parties, contributed greatly to the sum of human knowledge. Politically, notwithstanding the disappointment of being eclipsed by a Norwegian team, the Antarctic was appropriated for the imperial portfolio. Photographs, along with maps and charts, played their part in establishing proof of arrival and subsequent departure. In the aftermath of the First World War, this continued apace, with the Antarctic being ever more visualized as appropriated imperial territory, and pictures of imperial heroes such as Titus Oates being shown to British troops serving in the trenches in Europe. Economically, the expedition reaffirmed the resource value of the region, and helped to fire speculation about future mineral-based wealth. Finally, and most significantly, the loss of Scott and his party – disseminated through surviving diaries, photographs, and the films of Herbert Ponting - helped to cement in the British and wider imagination a vision of tragic heroic figures battling against the odds, enriched by a dedication to duty and to one another. Stung by this loss, coinciding as it did with another icy disaster involving the passenger ship the RMS Titanic, the British government and public played their part in ensuring that the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration was commemorated solemnly. A subsequent filmic treatment starring John Mills in Scott of the Antarctic (1948) reinforced for post-war audiences the stoical achievements of Scott and his final party, and interestingly used still shots from the Antarctic Peninsula, and members of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) were expected to dress up and reconstruct Scott and his party’s man-hauling exploits.

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Tracing the Antarctic

The Antarctic has been defined and delineated with reference to latitude, climatic characteristics, ecological qualities, political and legal boundaries, as well as through appeals to its sublime wilderness and endangerment. There is some congruence between these spatial definitions but also important gaps. Some definitions are more tightly defined while others emphasize how the Antarctic might be thought of in more elastic, even fuzzy, terms.

Defining the sub-Antarctic

This refers in the main to island groups that lie close and sometimes north of the Antarctic Convergence – where the colder waters of the Southern Ocean meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. These groups include Bouvet Island, the Kerguelen Islands, and the South Sandwich Islands. Unlike the Antarctic continent, countries such as Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa exercise sovereignty over these islands. Thus, they are in the main subject to undisputed territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, and continental shelf rights.

However, the ownership of some sub-Antarctic islands, such as South Georgia and South Sandwich, are disputed, in this case involving a long-standing disagreement between Britain and Argentina. In April 1982, the two countries were drawn into conflict over South Georgia and, further to the north, the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas. There are other islands, which are not considered sub-Antarctic sensu stricto, for example Southern Oceanic islands such as Gough and Auckland.

The Antarctic as an area, according to geographical convention at least, refers to everything below the Antarctic Circle, including ice shelves and water. The Antarctic Circle is distinguished from Antarctica, which refers to the landmass that is the southern polar continent. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, this is a fundamental distinction, as the area south of the Antarctic Circle (defined as 66°S of the Equator) experiences at least one day of continuous daylight every year (the December solstice), and a corresponding period of continuous night-time at least once per year (the June solstice). When it comes to the governance of the Antarctic, the Antarctic Convergenceern Ireland has also been used to manage activities such as fishing. Geographical latitude is only one possible register of the Antarctic. For the Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjold, writing in 1928, the polar regions were defined by their coldness. Characterized as desert-like, with annual precipitation of only 200 millimeters along the coast and less in the interior, only specially adapted plant and animal life was thought to be able to endure. As Nordenskjold concluded, ‘Nowhere on earth is nature so completely and directly characterized by the daily regular weather – by what we might call the normal climate – as in the polar lands.’ Temperatures in the interior of the continent can be as low as -50 °C and, at their very worst, -89 °C, recorded at the Soviet/Russian Antarctic research station on the polar plateau called Vostok.

1. The Antarctic Convergence represents an important climatic boundary between air and water masses, and is also an approximate boundary for the Southern Ocean, surrounding the Antarctic continent. The water around the land mass is cold and with a slightly lower salinity than north of the convergence zone. The area is also rich in nutrients, providing a key support for the ecosystems in the Southern Ocean.

The Antarctic Convergence (sometimes termed the ‘Antarctic polar front’ or the ‘polar frontal zone’), where the cold body of water that is the Southern Ocean meets the warmer waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, provides another definition of the Antarctic. Rather than a latitudinal delineation, we have here an oceanographic/climatic frontier that acts as a zone of transition emphasizing movement and connection. The convergence itself varies from year to year, depending on sea temperature and climatic trends. So these are flows that make, remake, and unmake a zone of some 30–50 kilometers in width, encircling the polar continent, and stretching north of South Georgia and Bouvet Island. It roughly coincides with the mean February isotherm (10°C) and lies around 58°S, considerably north of the Antarctic Circle. Air and sea surface temperatures change markedly once one crosses the Antarctic Convergence. In resource management terms, the Antarctic Convergence is significant because of the wealth of marine life, especially plankton and shrimp-like krill – the food of choice of birds, fish, and whales – that is found there. As such, it also means that fishing stocks and sea birds tend to be concentrated around the Antarctic Convergence, leading to greater interest in managing these areas of the Southern Ocean.

Unlike the zonal qualities of the Antarctic Convergence, the Southern Ocean is often defined as being south of 60° S latitude and thus encircling the continent. There is a disagreement, however. Does the Southern Ocean possess a more northerly boundary? While Captain James Cook used the term to describe the vast seas of 50°S, the International Hydrographic Organization cautiously established the boundary at 60°S in 2000. For Australians and New Zealanders, however, the water off the cities of Adelaide and Invercargill are the start of the Southern Ocean, thus consolidating their sense of these cities as ‘Antarctic gateways’.

The usage of the 60°S latitude for its tentative definition of the Southern Ocean coincides with the most important political definition of the Antarctic. Article VI of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty notes: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway.

The provisions of the present Treaty shall apply to the area south of 60° South Latitude, including all ice shelves, but nothing in the present Treaty shall prejudice or in any way affect the rights, or the exercise of the rights, of any State under international law with regard to the high seas within that area. This area of application entered into force in June 1961.

These lines and zones are just one way of tracing the Antarctic. In a more imaginative sense, we might acknowledge appeals to the sublime and wilderness. For 19th- and 20th-century explorers and scientists, the Antarctic was as much traced via the sublime as it was tentatively mapped and charted.

As a literary expression, this notion refers to the capacity of things in nature to overwhelm the human mind by their sheer grandeur and immense possibility. A place or landscape might, as a consequence, inspire awe or provoke terror. So the sublime refers to something beyond the calculable and measurable, and more to a state of mind. The Antarctic in this particular sense is a true frontier of the human and a testing ground of men in particular. Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s memoir of Scott’s last expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922), memorably referred to the Antarctic as a place of privation and suffering. As he noted caustically, ‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.’ But it could also be compelling, as Cherry-Gerrard noted, ‘And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.’

2. The Antarctic Treaty’s Zone of Application

The notion that the Antarctic landmass should be defined by its wilderness qualities is explicitly noted in Article 3 of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, which demands that Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCP) commit themselves to the ‘protection of the Antarctic environment … and the intrinsic value of Antarctica, including its wilderness and aesthetic values’. As well as for its own sake, Antarctica’s wilderness values matter when considered as part of an ongoing global debate about the fate of the planet. Recent television programmes (e.g. the BBC’s Frozen Planet), films (e.g. The March of the Penguins), music (e.g. Peter Maxwell Davies’s Antarctic Symphony), art (e.g. Anne Noble’s British Petroleum Map), and novels (e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica) suggest that the idea of the Antarctic landmass as wilderness provokes fascination, but also anxiety about what damage we might be doing as a human community to it. Are economic and ecological meltdown coproducing one another?

Thus, as we ponder some of the region’s diverse human and physical geographies, our regional scope will extend northwards of the Antarctic Circle to encompass the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and islands such as Campbell, Prince Edward Islands, South Orkneys, and South Georgia, as well as the Southern Ocean. When we consider the Antarctic more broadly, whether it be culturally, economically, politically, or environmentally, our terms of reference will need to be ever more flexible to acknowledge bi-polar, global, and even extra-terrestrial connections, including the Moon (for parallels with Earth).

Making and unmaking the Antarctic

A satellite composite image of the Antarctic, a rather recent representation of the region, reveals a continent composed of two parts – East and West Antarctica with the western section characterized by a serpentine tail pointing towards the southern tip of the South American continent. The Southern Ocean is far removed from other continents and accompanying centres of population. The continent itself encompasses some 14,000,000 square kilometers, some 6,000,000 square kilometers larger than the United States. The coastline encompasses nearly 18,000 kilometers and is composed of a mixture of ice shelves, ice walls, rock and ice streams. The Antarctic ice sheet covers about 98% of Antarctica, and is on average 1.6 kilometers thick and some 25 million cubic kilometers in volume. The continent contains 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water. If the ice sheet was to melt in its entirety, then sea water levels would, it is believed, rise by some 60 metres, with devastating consequences for lower-lying regions around the world.

But this satellite image, however striking, is misleading. The Antarctic is the world’s most unstable space, with extraordinary changes being recorded every year in terms of snow accumulation and sea ice extent. The satellite image literally freeze frames. Every September, in the late winter period, the size of the continent effectively doubles. A large area of the Southern Ocean extending more than 1,000 kilometres from the coastline is temporarily covered in sea ice. This capacity to alter has, over time, played havoc with attempts to map and chart the Antarctic. Countless explorers and mariners have discovered to their cost that existing maps are hopelessly inaccurate, and that there is a rich tradition of islands and coastlines being in the ‘wrong place’ or simply ‘disappearing’.

Geologically, the Antarctic has a long and complex history, its composition ranging from Precambrian crystalline rock to glacial deposits of a recent vintage. Some of the world’s oldest rock is found in the Antarctic, dating back some three billion years. Geological evidence suggests that the Antarctic has not always been characterized by the snow and cold; it was, for much of its history, a green continent. Sedimentary rocks, to be found in the Antarctic Peninsula region, reveal fossilized tropical ferns and pollen specimens, while coal deposits in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains suggests a climate favouring temperate vegetation. In the Cambrian era (590 to 505 million years ago), what we now term Antarctica was part of Gondwanaland, a super-continent composed of present-day South America, Africa, and Australia as well as parts of India, Madagascar, and New Zealand. It straddled the Equator, and layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale were deposited in tropical seas. The eastern portion of Antarctica reveals fossil evidence of marine plants such as tropical sponges. During the late Cambrian and Devonian periods (480 to 360 million years ago), the super-continent migrated towards the southern hemisphere, and some of Antarctica’s oldest fossil plants found in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains have been dated to about 360 million years ago. In other areas of the polar continent such as Victoria Land, the fossilized remains of marine life have been found.

As the super-continent experienced further cooling, so glacial deposits formed, and by about 280 million years ago, Gondwanaland was located around the current location of the polar continent. But the super-continent did not remain in a fixed position, and as it moved again slightly northwards, so new flora and fauna emerged including fern-like plants, later to contribute to the formation of coal deposits in the Trans-Antarctic Mern Ireland.

Some 90–85 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, this rich and biologically diverse supercontinent began to disintegrate and transformed the southern latitudes. As Gondwanaland fragmented still further, the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans were established, and Australia alongside Antarctica migrated southwards. Some 30–40 million years ago, Antarctica slipped even further south.

This drift helped to cause the separation between the South American Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula, and in the process this tectonic schism created an oceanic passage later to be named the Drake’s Passage. It is only through major scientific investment, and the development of new techniques involving geophysical and remote-sensing research, that we have a better idea of the underlying geology of the polar continent and Southern Ocean. The exact mechanisms of plate movement, however, remain opaque.

The Antarctic continent possesses a series of important geological and morphological characteristics. It is a continent surrounded by a ring of water – the Southern Ocean. Due to the circumpolar current, waters circulate around the continent in a predominantly clockwise direction. There is a series of mountainous ranges, including those found on the Peninsula region, which are connected geologically to the South American Andes. Centrally, the Trans-Antarctic Mountains weave through the centre of the continent from the Weddell Sea to the north to the Ross Sea in the south. Divided into two distinct parts by the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, the East and West portions of the continent were named for their relative positions to the Greenwich meridian.

The immense Antarctic ice sheet, created over millions of years, without melting, covers the polar continent. Due to pressure brought on by the sheer weight of 13 million square kilometers of extent, the ice flows from the continental interior towards the coastline. Large slabs break off, dramatically initiating icebergs to drift outwards towards the Southern Ocean. In 2002, the Larsen B Ice Shelf splintered and was widely judged to be indicative of a warming planet. In 2008, a huge chunk of the Wilkins Ice Shelf became detached, and 570 square kilometers of ice floated out to sea.

Unsurprisingly, there is much interest amongst the scientific community as to how the mass of this ice sheet has altered, and the overall ratio between accumulation and loss of ice. The changing state of the ice sheet and specific ice shelves such as the Larsen B is providing invaluable evidence of past climates, and a sobering warning of what further warming might do to other ice shelves. 3. Ice thickness map of the Antarctic West Antarctica is composed of the Antarctica Peninsula, Ellsworth Land, Marie Byrd Land, and the islands located within the Scotia Sea. Geologically, West Antarctica, especially the Antarctic Peninsula, is connected with a circum-Pacific chain of mountains. The Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula are, quite literally, connected to one another. The average elevation is 2,000 metres, and the chain is home to the continent’s highest mountain, Mount Vinson, at 4,897 metres.

N a great deal en Peninsula to withstanding these heights, a large part of West Antarctica is covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). This is a marine-based ice sheet because its base actually lies below the sea level, and its edges transform into floating ice shelves. The WAIS is believed to contain about 10% of the total volume of the Antarctic ice sheet, and some two million cubic kilometres of ice press down on the underlying bedrock. While the net result has been to depress the baseline, the ice can flow at different rates over the bedrock depending on local topographies. This subterranean variability is of interest to scientists because of concerns that the WAIS may not be stable. If the WAIS disintegrates, then global sea levels could rise some 3–4 metres. In 2006, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) warned about the possible collapse of this ice sheet, and noted that there was a danger that a tipping point might be reached thereafter accelerating ice sheet degeneration. Evidence for this change comes from research into a number of glaciers within the WAIS, coupled with observations about ocean circulation patterns around Western Antarctica that have reported a rise in ice mass loss in the period between 1996 and 2006.

East Antarctica lies on the other side of the 3,500-kilometre-long Trans-Antarctic Mountains, closer to the Indian Ocean. Geologically, the eastern portion is a stable ancient shield of Precambrian rock, similar in nature to that found in South America, South Africa, India, and Australia. It is here that the oldest rocks in Antarctica have been found, some dated to 3,900 million years ago. East Antarctica is covered by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), and rests on a large landmass, unlike the marine based WAIS. It is a thicker and larger ice sheet, with a thickness of up to 4,800 metres. The South Pole is to be found on the EAIS, and beneath it lie spectacular sub-glacial lakes such as Vostok – about the size of Lake Ontario, stretching some 50 kilometres in length, and possibly created some two to three million years ago. East Antarctica is the largest and coolest portion of the polar continent, stretching from Queen Maud Land and encompassing the vast polar plateau including Wilkes Land and Victoria Land. The future stability of this part of the continent depends inter alia on ozone concentration coupled with weather patterns, including the polar vortex which helps to trap cold air near the South Pole.

The Antarctic coastline is immensely varied, rising steeply in places such as the mountainous Antarctic Peninsula and areas adjacent to the Ross Sea. Immense ice cliffs are to be found along much of the East Antarctic coastline. In other regions, floating ice shelves such as the Brunt Ice Shelf and the Ronne Ice Shelf represent the end point of glaciers flowing out towards the sea. Beyond the Antarctic coastline, the continental shelf falls sharply into tectonically active ocean basins, which lie anywhere between 3,000 to 6,000 metres depth. Volcanoes are to be found onshore and offshore, even if most are concentrated in western Antarctica.

Scientific curiosity remains piqued, as less than 1% of Antarctica’s rock is actually accessible for direct examination, and researching the deep geology of the Southern Ocean presents considerable challenges. There is still a great deal to discover

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