One hundred fifty million years ago, the supercontinent Gondwana dominated the earth’s surface. As tectonic movement shifted the great plates composing this vast land mass, the continents began to move and, about 37 million years ago, the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica began to form. The great Antarctic ecosystem breathed its first life.
Antarctica’s proportions are enormous: it contains 5.4 million square miles, equivalent to 10 percent of earth’s land surface and approximately the size of the United States and Mexico combined. During the austral winter, sea ice may double the size of the continent. Ninety-nine percent of Antarctica is covered by a permanent ice sheet, which averages over a mile in thickness, and in some places is almost three miles thick. Ninety percent of the world’s ice and 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is locked in this ice pack. Antarctica’s surrounding Southern Ocean ecosystem is the largest and most fertile in the world. It comprises 13.9 million square miles, equivalent to 10 percent of the world’s oceans, and extends from the Antarctic continent to the Antarctic Convergence, that boundary where northward-moving, cold Antarctic water meets southward-flowing, warm subantarctic water from the Atlantic,. Pacific, and Indian oceans. The Antarctic circumpolar current — the West Wind Drift — transports more water than any other system in the world’s oceans. The sheer richness of the ecosystem is staggering.
As this website launches, this ecosystem is in its fifth decade of oversight by the Antarctic Treaty system. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 (and went into force two years later) amid a rampant feeling of worldwide goodwill generated by the International Geophysical Year. Today more than 75 percent of the earth’s population is represented in the Antarctic Treaty system, which strives to protect a continent devoted to science and our own species’ best instincts. In great part, the entire system is built on an internal compromise that allowed seven claimant nations (as well as the United States and the Soviet Union, which asserted the ”basis” for such claims) to avoid pressing their territorial instincts to the maximum. Now that there has been one war in the Southern Ocean, the preciousness of that internal compromise has become ever more apparent.
The treaty has maintained its status as a modern-day Magna Carta by closing real or apparent gaps in its original version. Whales theoretically are protected under the adjunct International Whaling Commission, and the Antarctic Treaty parties have implemented separate conventions regarding Antarctic seals, marine living resources (krill and fish), and the Antarctic environment. This latter protocol, signed in 1991 and entering into force in 1998, requires the use of environmental impact statements by all member nations to assess whether activities will have negative consequences. And, it is hoped, the Antarctic Environmental Protocol will preserve that delicate internal compromise that has kept the Antarctic a demilitarized, denuclearized continent for peace, wildlife, and science.
Via this website, I and everyone connected with Oceanites relish the opportunity to share the glories of Antarctica with the widest possible, international audience, and to foster more “Antarctic spirit.” The serenity and pristine qualities of the great seventh continent and its surrounding ocean ecosystem must continue. Antarctica is where our dreams and aspirations lie. it is where we must continue evidencing that particular brand of goodwill and caring so typical of us Homo sapiens.
Looking into the crystal ball, however, one sees grim portents. The world’s population is approaching 6.6 billion people and will reach 12 billion before the middle of this century. We humans may have exceeded — artificially — our own carrying capacity on this planet and, if the trend is not reversed, even Antarctica will be consumed by our never-ending, sometimes wrong-headed search for food and fuel.
That said, our most pressing concern is climate change. The scientific evidence points clearly in one direction and we face the very daunting task of getting everyone to think seriously about generations, geologic time and changed lifestyles, rather than focusing on the immediate pleasures of our present, flickering moments of life. Steps we take now could dictate our own survival.
Humankind, let alone ecosystems, cannot easily regulate morality or environmental purity. But perhaps we can be inspired to higher ground. If not, we as a species are doomed, as are our fellow creatures on this planet — the penguins, whales, krill, and seals — and beloved Antarctica itself. I’m struck by the “gray matter” that these monumental issue present. They pose no clear, black-and-white solutions, nor will any of our difficult choices be cheap. But they must be made.
We must band together to inspire ourselves, our policymakers, and our friends. Clearly, the risk of becoming an “Antarcticist” — to use Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s term — is that it generates serious responsibilities and obligations. Fortunately, retaining at least some optimism, I still hope that our serious band of Antarcticists can change the world and ensure that the Wild Ice remains wild, forever.
(Adapted from WILD ICE, Smithsonian Institution Press)