The Bell Tolls. This time, from Antarctica.

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Antarctica is a desert. It’s the coldest continent on earth, with world record low of -128.6 °F (−89.2 °C). It’s one and a half time the size of the US and 98% covered in ice that averages 1 mile in thickness. It’s home to about 1150 species of fungi and numerous other invertebrates, penguins and marine life (but not polar bears).

Antarctica is more than just an animal habitat or a geographic oddity, however. It’s also one of the world’s most important natural labs. Antarctica has a profound effect on the Earth’s climate and ocean systems, and it plays a crucial role in our understanding of global climate change. Locked within its ice is record of what our planet’s history over millions of years. We need to preserve it.

The National Science Foundation funds an incredible amount of Antarctic research (watch their live webcam of the Southern Lights and South Pole here, and learn about general living conditions in the South Pole here). Researchers in Antarctica include biologistsgeologistsoceanographersphysicistsastronomersglaciologistsmeteorologists…and even artists. Their subjects of study range from nothing less than “the history of the universe” to marine life and dinosaurs, and from the ozone to global warming and waterproof glue. In fact, many astronomical observations are better made from the interior of Antarctica than from most surface locations. This is because of high elevation, low water vapor in the air, and the absence of light pollution.

(Antoher great link to Antarctic research, from the San Francisco Exploratorium)

The view of space from the interior of Antarctica is clearer than anywhere else on Earth.

In 1959, 12 nations signed the Antarctic Treaty (now there are 49 signatories), which provides the legal framework for land beyond 60º South latitude. It regulates  environmental protection measures for expeditions, stations, and visitors; waste-management provisions; a ban on mining; establishment of specially protected areas; and agreements for the protection of seals and other marine living resources. But in recent years, tourism to Antarctica has drastically increased, with 33,824 visitors in 2010/2011. Compared to, say, the Sistine Chapel (at about 10,000 visitors/day) Antarctica is still untouched. But considering its pristine climate and fragile atmosphere, 33,000+ is massive. We must be careful. There are certainly caps on tourism and heavy regulation, but the onus is largely upon us as visitors to this solitary place to be careful.

Money can buy so much, but I hope that it never buys big ships that are vulnerable to sinking and spreading waste in a place like Antarctica. Money can buy so much, but I hope that it never buys a candy bar whose wrapper ends up on the shore of Deception Island.

The photos here are some that I captured on a recent trip (larger if you click on them). Yes, I was one of the tourists–a member of a photo expedition. I hope now, however, to act as journalist and advocate. I tried very carefully to scrub my boots in the antimicrobial liquid each day. I kept my distance from the wildlife, and I kept my mittens close at all times. You have to take these things seriously. Little as they seem.

One of the things that amazed me most about Antarctica (in case you’ve not yet been captured by its importance), was it’s flux. On my trip there, passing through the Drake doped up on Dramamine, I wondered why so many of my fellow passengers were on their third, fifth, or fifteenth trip across that most rugged stretch of water. At the time, it seemed like an awful lot of money, an awful lot of effort, and an awful lot of rocking to get somewhere. But as the sea settled and the ice began, my opinion quickly changed. The place was so martian. So majestic. So secluded. And, yes, so pristine. I’d go back a million times if it didn’t hurt the place (and if money weren’t an issue). The most amazing part, however, is that no two trips would ever be the same.

Yes, every day is different. But in Antarctica the world is made of ice. So imagine a place in which the shapes of buildings and trees changed from hour to hour and moved from week to week. That is Antarctica. Watching the icebergs was like watching a slowly shifting sky of clouds.

If you still aren’t convinced and awe-struck at its import and beauty, I suggest watching the BBC’s breath-taking Frozen Planet.

We have very few sanctuaries left in this world that have not been touched and tainted by our own hands. Although few of us will ever make it to Antarctica, I promise that its silence and its strangeness, to say nothing of its scientific significance, would be a shame on us all to spoil.

Even if none of us ever went there again–even if all the studies and research stopped-I would still believe that Antarctica is precious and imperative to protect.

Because it is.


See Antarctica from googlearth

For those averse to cold or vulnerable to sea sickness, there are sanctuaries for you to protect as well:


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