The Only Peaceful Continent


While humans have hypothesized the existence
of Antarctica at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, the first time we laid eyes
on the Antarctic mainland wasn’t until 1820, though James Cook is thought to have come
within about 150 miles of it in 1773. No one knows for certain who spotted the continent
first as the sightings all occurred within a very short period of each other, but it’s
generally accepted that the three expeditions that “first” spotted the main land were led
by Captain Edward Bransfield of the Royal Navy, American sealer Nathanial Palmer, and
Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen of the Russian Imperial Navy. Whoever was really first, exploration of Antarctica
tapered off during the middle of the 19th century only to experience a resurgence in
what is known as the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration which resulted in Norwegian Roald
Amundsen leading the first successful group to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Territorial claims on the land began as early
as 1908 with seven countries making claims between then and 1943. Those countries were Argentina, Chile, Australia,
the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Norway, and France. Claiming territory might not be a big deal
when countries recognize each other’s claims, but as the many wars humans have fought over
the centuries attest, it can be problematic when those claims overlap. That was the case for Chile, Argentina, and
Great Britain. When Britain proposed the three countries
argue their cases with the International Court of Justice in both 1947 and 1955, Argentina
and Chile refused. It was then suggested that those with an interest
in the continent put aside their differences and have joint control over the continent. Other proposals brought before the countries
of the United Nations tried to create an international agreement for governing Antarctica and even
create a UN trusteeship. But they all failed to gain traction. It was the International Geophysical Year
(IGY) that provided the impetus for international cooperation in Antarctica. The IGY spanned eighteen months starting in
1957 where twelve countries carried out major scientific research on Antarctica. These countries consisted of those seven with
territory claims on the continent, along with the United States, Soviet Union, Japan, Belgium,
and South Africa. The IGY was such a success that the United
States invited the participating nations to Washington, D.C. from October 15 to December
1, 1959. This meeting- the Conference on Antarctica-
concluded with the creation of the Antarctic Treaty. It went into effect in 1961 after being ratified
by all twelve countries, perhaps somewhat of a surprise given an era when the Soviet
Union and the United States could rarely agree on anything. The Antarctic Treaty outlined protections
for the continent and effectively halted tensions over territorial claims. While the treaty does not force any country
to give up its right to territorial claims or deny sovereignty over that land, it prevents
member countries from asserting those claims via any non-peaceful activities. The preamble states: “… it is in the interest
of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful
purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” Article 1 drives home the requirement for
peace by forbidding any military action, bases, and weapons testing. Article V even prohibits nuclear explosions
and the disposal of nuclear material on the continent, effectively eliminating nuclear
testing or direct pollution in Antarctica. The treaty also addresses the continuation
of scientific research, stating “Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica
and cooperation toward that end … shall continue…” It goes a step further by requiring the signatory
countries to inform the others when conducting scientific studies and to freely share information. In order to partially facilitate this and
ensure everyone on the continent is actually focused on science, the treaty allows each
country to observe and inspect the facilities and equipment of any of the others. The Antarctic Treaty has since grown to include
other agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), and so has
the number of members. As of the writing of this script, there were
fifty-four countries belonging to the ATS with interests in scientific research in Antarctica. Bonus Facts:
• Ever wonder what time zone the poles are in? Well, wonder no more: Given that they are
every possible hour all the time, or more aptly technically in every time zone, it turns
out that there are actually no official time zones at the poles. Nevertheless, groups working at or visiting
the poles still have a need to keep track of and coordinate time, so what do they use? To begin with, some choose to synchronize
their watches with the closest or last point of civilization. For example, the U.S. research center on Antarctica,
McMurdo Station, uses the time zone of Christchurch, New Zealand, as it is the last (or first)
city most travelers to and from McMurdo pass through and where they get most of their supplies
from. Other bases use the time zones of their home
countries, while still others just go with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the successor
to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the latter of which is no longer defined precisely but in
a practical sense is somewhat interchangeable with UTC. • The name Antarctica comes from the Greek
word “antarktike,” which literally means “opposite to the north.” The continent is, of course, home to the southernmost
point on Earth. John George Bartholomew, a Scottish cartographer,
is believed to be the first person to use “Antartica” to refer to the continent. However, the name was used for a different
place by the French before this. In the 1500s, they held a colony in Brazil
below the equator which they named France Antartique. Remarkably, a bird weighing only on average
around 100 grams called the Arctic Tern manages to make a migration spanning from the shores
of Antarctica all the way to Greenland. Tracked via 1.4 gram geolocators, scientists
were able to determine the shortest migration for the birds was an astounding 36,900 miles
(60,000 km) while the longest was 50,700 miles (81,000 km). For perspective, the circumference of the
Earth is 24,901 miles (40,075 km). This makes them the record holder for longest
migration of any bird. This migration is completed annually at every
life stage. Given that the Arctic Tern can live as many
as 35 years, a single Arctic tern can potentially travel about 1.5 million miles (2.4 million
km) in their lifetime. That is equal to 3 trips to the Moon and back! During its migration, the Arctic Tern completes
a roundtrip from Greenland, traversing the Weddell Sea and, as noted, even flying along
the shores of Antarctica. The birds take a break at sea over the North
Atlantic Ocean while they fuel up on food (being a seabird, they eat mainly fish and
marine invertebrates). Once this break is completed, the birds head
down the coast of northwest Africa, around the Cape Verde Islands, then off the west
coast of Africa towards Senegal. At this point in their travels, something
very odd occurs. Rather than following the same path, only
around half of the migrating birds will continue the path along the coast of Africa. The remaining birds actually cross the Atlantic
Ocean and go down the coast of South America. The reason behind this isn’t fully understood;
but whatever the case, both sets of birds complete their trips successfully. The return trip also has an interesting twist. Rather than traveling straight back along
the path they came, the Terns instead travel in a twisted ‘S’ shaped pattern through the
Atlantic Ocean. Though this route adds many miles to their
trip, it has a purpose. The birds are taking advantage of the global
wind system. So although they’re taking a meandering path,
they actually use less energy thanks to the wind currents.

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