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Ice At The End Of The World

By Joe Strykowski

The Pristine Wilderness Of Antarctica


It is the world's coldest ice dive. Winds whistle across its desolate ice sheet at 200 miles per hour. Earth's coldest temperature ever (-129 degrees F) was recorded here. Wrapped in ice 8,000 feet thick on average, it is earth's last terrestrial frontier. It is Antarctica, the coldest place on earth.

Its ice cap covers 5.4 million square miles, an area twice the size of Australia. Two-thirds of earth's fresh water (7 million cubic miles) is located in its ice pack. It influences all earth's environmental systems.

Antarctica is a pristine wilderness of mountains, glaciers, and white deserts. It is a place of boundless beauty. One hundred feet below the ice cap, the seabed nurtures extravagant flora and fauna.

Microscopic phytoplankton, a life form so tiny 5 million could fit inside a bottle 3 inches tall, bloom each spring to support the omnivorous krill. The small shrimp-like crustacean is the linchpin for the Antarctic food chain. Antarctica is home to one hundred million penguins, superb swimmers which feed mainly on krill. Here too, swims the peripatetic crabeater seal which consumes 63 million tons of kriII a year.

Still, the natural systems supporting the profusion of life in Antarctica reel under the assault of human activity.

Antarctica Today
Robert Falcon Scott, the polar explorer, so respected pristine Antarctica he ordered his team to pack their trash out rather than pollute. Those who followed have not shared his noble ethic.

DDT has been found in Adelie penguin eggs. Fishing fleets strip-mine Antarctica's waters. Over one million whales have been killed here. Crabeater and leopard seals carry canine distemper antibodies, evidence of exposure to diseases transmitted by man's dogs.

Global Warming and Meltdown
Earth's atmosphere traps the sun's heat and warms the earth. Since the industrial revolution excessive amounts of heat-trapping gases have been accumulating in the atmosphere and raising global temperature. Carbon dioxide is the major culprit. Nearly 2 billion tons are released annually by burning fossil fuels. If global warming persists and the ice melts, it could trigger a rise in sea level as much as 180 feet.

The Pierced Shield
The atmosphere's ozone layer shields earth from harmful solar radiation. But holes (zones of significantly reduced ozone layers) are appearing over Antarctica allowing cancer-causing ultraviolet sun rays to reach earth. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are the primary cause. CFCs reach the stratosphere and are carried south to Antarctica. The ultraviolet rays kill phytoplankton and krill, the bottom of the food chain. By some estimates, increased ultraviolet rays have already caused a 12 percent decline in Antarctica's phytoplankton production.

The gases that drive our refrigerators and air conditioners contribute an estimated 6,000 metric tons of CFC emissions a year. Globally, millions of lives are at risk from skin cancer alone.

McMurdo Station
Winter Quarters Bay is a natural harbor abutting McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base in Antarctica. Since the 1950s, McMurdo crews have dumped radioactive waste, junk equipment, garbage, oil, and PCBs into Winter Quarters Bay.

Persistent toxins cause disease in marine life and contaminate seafood. Radioactive waste and pathogens from human sewage can enter the food chain and spread disease. Complaints from environmental groups and threat of lawsuits motivated McMurdo to clean up its act. But Winter Quarters Bay is still one of the most polluted areas in Antarctica. Its water and bottom sediments are contaminated and its raw sewage continues to empty into the bay.

Scientists recently discovered human coliform bacteria being sucked into McMurdo's drinking water intake. The desalinization process kills bacteria, but researchers fear infectious viruses could survive.

Increased Human Occupation
The combined staffs of Antarctica's forty bases and refuges now number 4,000 in the perpetual sunlight of summer. Now add over 3,000 tourists drawn to Antarctica annually. It is a tad ironic that Antarctica hadn't received its first human visitor until 175 years ago.

Antarctica's First Environmental Disaster
The Argentinean transport ship, Bahia Paradiso, ran hard aground and sank in 1989, creating Antarctica's first environmental disaster.

The ship sank less than 2 miles from the U.S. research station on the Antarctic Peninsula. More than 170,000 gallons of diesel oil fouled the shoreline killing hundreds of seabirds.

Mineral and Oil Exploitation
The environmental threat that has conservationists most concerned is the certain exploitation of Antarctica's oil and mineral resources should serious deposits be found. It is not a question of whether mining or off-shore oil production should be allowed in Antarctica, but when. Geologists have found traces of copper, lead, zinc, gold, and silver, and the coal seams running through the Transantarctic Mountains may be the most extensive on earth. Profitable oil production and mining may still be 25 years off, but the clock is ticking.

Solution: World Park
The exploitation of Antarctica's oil and mineral resources and the risks of oil production and mining is making environmentalists nervous. As humankind becomes aware of Antarctica's fragile nature, support for earth's first international park grows.

Greenpeace leads a campaign to make the whole of Antarctica a world park. The concept is based on the following principles:

  1. The wilderness values of Antarctica should be protected;
  2. There should be complete protection for Antarctic wildlife (though limited fishing would be permissible);
  3. Antarctica should remain a zone of limited scientific activity, with cooperation and coordination between scientists of all nations;
  4. Antarctica should remain a zone of peace, free of all weapons.

Antarctica is in the grip of change, and a growing number of world citizens support the World Park concept for the most compelling of reasons.

Summary

Antarctica is a barometer of change brought about by human intervention. It is vulnerable to man's limitless greed. Humankind must do whatever must be done to preserve Antarctica. After Antarctica, there are no more pristine wildernesses. It is reason enough to guarantee its protection. On a small planet growing ever more polluted and despoiled, our children are watching us.