South Pole marker reads "90 south and flowing freely."
Others say "a continent for peace." ©
not just science that's an experiment in Antarctica
probably sitting in a chair somewhere while you're reading
this. That chair is sitting on some land. That land is owned
by someone -- your government, your bank, maybe. If you're
lucky, you own the land. The bottom line is: It belongs to
Unless you're in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the only place on the planet where the land
isn't officially owned by anyone. A few countries have made
land claims (for more about this, see the information box
on the next page), but those claims aren't officially recognized
and don't cover the entire continent. Antarctica is governed
by the Antarctic
Treaty, written in 1959 and adopted in 1961, which has
been signed by 27 countries. Another 17 countries have agreed
to abide by the Treaty in order to participate in research
being done in Antarctica. The treaty requires (among other
things) that information is shared openly among researchers,
that science done in Antarctica is for peaceful, non-commercial
purposes, and that no weapons development or testing takes
Treatys design makes for an interesting political experiment:
freedom of scientific pursuit and international cooperation
in an environment devoid of military and commercial interests.
Sound Utopian? Well, it is. Sort of.
International dealings in Antarctica are both simpler and
more complicated than in other parts of the globe. They're
simpler because the continent is so isolated, and Treaty laws
assure that science there is mostly basic research. That means
the work doesn't have an immediate impact on the health, economy,
or security of a Treaty nation's population, and doesn't raise
as many hackles. U.S. citizens, for instance, raise far more
questions about nuclear research in New Mexico than about
neutrino research at the South Pole.
the other hand, when conflicts do arise, officials have no
precedents or examples suggesting how to deal with them. In
fact, without a governing body, it's sometimes unclear who
should deal with things, and who (if anyone) they should answer
to. The political momentum that powers decision-making engines
in the rest of the world doesn't have as much steam in Antarctica,
and that can leave conflicts murky and unsettled.
schmolitics. What does that have to do with science?
Antarctica, the answer is: Everything.
Antarctica's population is devoted to science. That science
is dependent on the natural environment. The research value
of that environment depends on how it's treated by scientists.
And determination of how it's treated often depends on negotiations,
which are characterized by -- you guessed it -- politics.
We all know that politics are plenty complicated when it's
clear who's in charge. So imagine the potential confusion
on the Continent of Science, where everyone and no one is
at the helm.
In short, decisions that can make or break the preservation
of Antarctica's unique scientific opportunities depend on
an unprecedented political system designed to have no particular
Confused? Perhaps this example will give you a clearer idea:
most pristine water on Earth resides in several
lakes buried under thousands of feet of Antarctic ice.
The largest of these is Lake Vostok, so named because it is
near Russia's Vostok Station. It's huge: Compared with Lake
Superior (the world's largest freshwater lake), Vostok is
the same depth, with about one-sixth the surface area.
For biologists and geologists, Lake Vostok is a potential
treasure trove. Nothing has disturbed it for at least 400,000
years. It might host ancient organisms, an active opening
in the earth's crust, or an entirely unfamiliar habitat. Russia's
ice-coring drills are, at the moment, a mere 150 meters from
the lake's ice-covered surface, which means that unprecedented
discoveries may be quite near at hand.