Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
Ideas Tools Place Live Field Notes

Antarctica
Area:
14 million square km (5.4 mill square miles)

Approximate population:
Summer (January): 3,600
Winter (July): 960

Number of research stations:
Year-round: 42
Summer only: 32

Number of airports: 19
Number of heliports: 27

Antarctic Treaty

Signed: Dec 1, 1959
Entered into force: June 23, 1961

Number of treaty members: 44

Original treaty signatories:
Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, The French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, U.S.S.R., U.K., U.S.A.

Additional signatories:
Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Peru, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Spain, and Uruguay

Nations acceding to the Antarctic Treaty (these nations agree to abide by the treaty and may attend consultative meetings as observers):
Austria, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Denmark, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Slovak Republic, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela

Territorial claims:
Made by Argentina, Norway, Australia, France, New Zealand, Britain, Chile. Brazil has a "zone of interest." Map of territorial claims.

The other Treaty nations have made no claims (although the U.S. and Russia have reserved the right to do so), and do not recognize the claims of other nations. The Antarctic Treaty prohibits future claims.

Military: The Treaty prohibits establishment of military bases, weapons testing or maneuvers. Treaty countries can have military personnel and equipment on the continent for scientific or other peaceful purposes.


It's not just science that's an experiment in Antarctica
page 2

For scientists used to working in a more polluted world, Lake Vostok is the sort of ancient and pure observatory that provokes a dizzy delight with its possibilities. It's also the sort of remarkably undefiled place that invites debates over how it should be explored.

Russians discovered the lake in 1998 while extracting ice cores for the study of climate change. So far, they've drilled 3,623 meters into the ice, and plan to go another 50 meters further in 2002. That would put them only 100 meters away from the water's surface. The Russians, along with many Antarctic scientists, want to reach the actual water of the lake to look for new organisms and analyze sediments. They argue that since their drills are already so close to the lake's surface, they might as well go ahead and make the entrance.

But other countries have objected, pointing out that Russia's drill hole -- which contains 60 metric tons of kerosene and freon drilling fluid -- will contaminate the waters of the lake and destroy what could be a wholly unique natural research site. In response, Russian engineers say they could lower the pressure in the drill hole enough so that lake water would rise up into it and freeze, keeping the drilling fluids from washing into the lake. But researchers and engineers from a number of other countries have questioned the plan, suggesting other approaches they consider less environmentally risky. Russia has been adamant in its desire to continue drilling.

Beyond that, the United States is eyeing Lake Vostok with a different interest -- as a potential trial ground for future NASA missions. NASA astronomers believe the lake and its ice resemble the surface of Europa, Jupiter's fourth largest moon. They want to use the area to develop technology that could penetrate such a surface without contaminating it. Several researchers and environmental groups have suggested that the United States use a smaller, less unique lake, saying the NASA proposal could cost the purity of Vostok's waters, and with it, the research opportunities of other scientists.

How does the Antarctic Treaty handle a quandary like this? The short, almost-accurate answer is that it doesn't. Klaus Dodds, a geography professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose specialty is the geopolitics of Antarctica, points out that "The 1959 Antarctic Treaty is fundamentally based on freedom of scientific investigation, and the Treaty has worked because each party by and large respected the rights of others to conduct scientific research." The question here is whether or not one party's scientific pursuits will endanger another's.

The Treaty does provide some safeguards for these types of situations. It requires, for instance, that environmental impact statements be made about all new facilities and projects. The effects of the NASA proposal on the lake will, hopefully, be further explored in those investigations. Environmental groups and national governments are battling out the terms of these assessments even as this article is being written.

The human problem

While there are real worries about the effects of drilling into Lake Vostok, the reality is that the very presence of people on Antarctica poses an even bigger threat to the continent’s pristine wilderness. In the past, researchers and engineers living on Antarctica weren't always the most environmentally conscious. McMurdo Station, for example, was infamous for its unfriendly practices of burning trash, dumping waste into the ocean waters, and installing a nuclear generator for electricity.

 

back page: 1 | 2| 3 next
 
Origins Exploratorium ANTARCTICA

 

© Exploratorium