The Glories of the Wild Ice
by Ron Naveen
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.
(Adapted from WILD ICE, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990)
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 Untied 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 global warming. 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.