Icebound in Antarctica

Icebound in Antarctica

Icebound in Antarctica

Icebound in Antarctica

Excerpt

A word about the main protagonist in this story, Antarctica itself, is timely here. The great southern land is about the size of the continental United States plus most of Western Europe. Roughly 95 per cent is covered by an ice sheet averaging one mile in thickness, often two miles in West Antarctica. On the 5 per cent of exposed rock no permanent rivers run, no flowers bloom. Only the most primitive plants – lichens and mosses, sparse grasses towards the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (the northward extension of the continent below South America that extends to within 600 miles of Cape Horn) – cling to a precarious foothold.

Seven countries: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, France and Norway, but not the USA or the Soviet Union, make claims to territory. Argentina and Chile have even invoked the Papal Bull of 1498 that divided the world between Spain and Portugal in support of their rival claims. Since both countries could claim with equal justification to be Spain’s heirs, nothing was resolved. In December 1959 an Antarctic treaty was signed that largely put an end to territorial bickering. The claims would be held in abeyance, it was agreed, for the thirty-year duration of the treaty (it is open for revision in 1991). Thus without acrimony the United States set up bases in New Zealand’s Ross Sea Dependency and on the Antarctic Peninsula, where Britain, Chile and Argentina have overlapping claims, while the Soviet Union moved in force into the enormous Australian sector.

Antarctica has thereafter been administered by an exclusive club – the sixteen Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties plus a further eighteen acceding nations (the number increases almost daily). A multinational civil service establishment called the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which is heavily influenced by the National Science Foundation in Washington, virtually runs the continent. The accent is on . . .

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