Antarctica, Continent of Science and Peace?

By Bequette, France | UNESCO Courier, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview

Antarctica, Continent of Science and Peace?


Bequette, France, UNESCO Courier


A few months from now we shall know whether the international community has the

good sense to respect a continent where the dawn is more beautiful than anywhere else in the world--but one which already has a hole in its ozone layer'.

A continent in its own right, covering an area larger than Europe, Antarctica has long been shrouded in mystery. From the early years of the last century, national flags gradually came to be planted over it, although it has never been the scene of armed conflict. Since then, eighteen States have laid claim to varying portions of the continent, which in 1940 was divided into cake-like slices extending outwards from the South Pole to the surrounding ocean. However it was not until 1958, thanks to the combined efforts of explorers, aircraft and satellites, that Antarctica was completely mapped.

This enormous landmass is covered by an ice cap which is estimated to be 2,500 metres thick and accounts for roughly one-third of the planet's freshwater reserves. In 1983, at the Soviet Vostok base in the interior, a temperature of-89.6[degrees] C was recorded, setting an all-time low in an environment where cold is constant, with temperatures ranging from -36[degrees] C in January to -72[degrees] C in July. The most extreme conditions are associated with blizzards, fierce biting winds accompanied by snow-falls, which reduce visibility to zero and make the cold unbearable.

Yet Antarctica has exerted great fascination over people ever since the American navigator John Davis first set foot on the continent in 1821. Scientists and explorers of extreme conditions followed in each other's footsteps. International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958 provided the occasion for setting up the first permanent scientific stations. Some 2,000 people now occupy all the year round forty-two bases located on the continent or on the offshore islands, while twenty-six other bases are only occupied during the southern summer. Research being carried out covers such broad subject areas as glaciology, meteorology, the Earth's magnetic field and the upper atmosphere, but even so the continent has by no means yielded all its secrets.

About 140 million years ago, the east of Antarctica was still at the heart of an enormous continent, known as Gondwanaland, formed of what are now Africa, South America, India, Australia and New Zealand. Gondwana land had a temperate climate and was covered with forests and inhabited by reptiles and amphibians, vestiges of which dating back 200 million years have been found. In 1982, American scientists unearthed the fossil remains of a small, 40-million-year-old marsupial that was an ancestor of those now found in Australia, thus showing that these territories once formed a single landmass. However, through the action of what is known as plate tectonics, rift faults started to appear and these were gradually widened by movements of the Earth's crust. Antarctica came to be isolated from the rest in the ice-bound ocean of the South Pole, where its temperature fell and its forests gave way to everlasting snow. It is still not known exactly when the different parts of Gondwanaland started to break away or what the shape of the continents was at that time.

HEAT UNDER THE ICE

In the south of Antarctica, Mr. Erebus, on Ross Island, is the continent's only still active volcano. Not far from Erebus, there are "oases", or dry valleys, which have been given that name because there has not been a single drop of precipitation for at least two million years. The ice has retreated and the snow is melted by the the heat of the Sun's rays. These rock-strewn deserts have been used by the US National Aeronatics and Space Administration (NASA) to test equipment for the exploration of Mars, whose surface features are similar. Lake Vanda, which is situated in the middle of one of these desert areas and which, in the everlasting cold, is almost always covered by a thick layer of ice, displays one peculiar feature, in that the temperature of the water at its lower levels may rise to as high as 25[degrees] C. …

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