The Last Wild Place

Antarctica is widely referred to as the last wilderness area on Earth, and with good reason. It is our highest, driest, coldest, windiest and most remote place. Visitors, explorers and scientists alike all testify to its devastating beauty. The vast majority of its great frozen expanse remains largely unspoiled, the way it has been for countless millennia.

There are about seven million cubic miles of ice in Antarctica, more than 90 percent of all the ice, and three-quarters of the fresh water, in the world. The average depth of ice on the Antarctic continent, where the average temperature is -60 Fahrenheit, is 6,500 feet; at its greatest recorded depth, it is 15,670 feet. In places, entire mountain ranges, the size of Europe’s Alps, lie buried beneath the surface.

But if Antarctica still qualifies as the nearest thing to a pristine environment on the planet, its future unsullied beauty is by no means guaranteed. It has already taken concerted efforts by environmentalists to prevent the continent from being opened up for mining, and a number of other threats are looming. Campaigners say that, incrementally, the pressures on the Antarctic environment are increasing as never before, and the environment’s ability to withstand those pressures is in doubt.

“Right now, Antarctica is at a crossroads,” says Beth Clark, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Antarctica Project. “Antarctica is one of the most fragile and-so far-unspoiled, areas on Earth. The choices we make now will go a long way to deciding whether Antarctica remains the last wilderness or becomes just the latest resource.”

Delayed Reaction

The campaign to protect Antarctica largely developed in the 1970s. In particular, it was stimulated by the interest shown by international industry in Antarctica’s mineral wealth: gold, uranium and other elements which lie beneath the continent’s icy mantle, and oil, thought to exist below the ocean floor.

According to Clark, a latent interest in mining exploded in the early 1980s, following the oil embargoes of the previous decade. “Antarctic Treaty nations began negotiating a mining convention among themselves,” she says. “Instead of trying to ban mining, opponents initially had faith that the technological obstacles to mining-sub-zero temperatures and howling winds-would prevent any minerals exploitation from actually taking place.”

The primary criterion for being able to join the Antarctic Treaty then was operating an established scientific base on Antarctica, and as discussions for a minerals convention gathered pace, so too did the number of nations suddenly wanting to set up scientific research stations on the continent. From a handful, the number of scientific bases on Antarctica rapidly expanded to a peak of almost 60.

“Some of these bases undoubtedly did a lot of really good research,” says Greenpeace’s Susan Sabella. “But for a whole lot of others, it was completely bogus.” Built with little concern for, or interest in, the Antarctic environment, many of these bases had serious impacts on their surroundings.

A Sensitive Environment

“It is important to remember that the Antarctic environment is tremendously sensitive,” says William R. Frasier of Montana State University. “The conditions are incredibly harsh, and plant life in particular can take many hundreds of years to become established, so that what might appear to be minimal damage in temperate zones can have very serious effects. Some moss beds on the Antarctic Peninsula have taken three to four hundred years to grow; a single human footprint can cause tremendous damage and remain there as a permanent record.”

But impacts are far more severe than a few footprints. Vehicle pollution, dumping of wastes-including PCBs, plastics, solid wastes, food and batteries-the burning of fossil fuels, and even road and airstrip construction were among the human activities that suddenly intruded on this quiet world.

In one of the more extreme examples, pollution in parts of McMurdo Sound, near the largest U.S. base, was so severe that Greenpeace likened the area to Boston Harbor. Elsewhere, worldwide condemnation accompanied France’s decision to dynamite five small islands to create an airstrip-in the process killing penguins and other birds during the blasting, and also destroying valuable breeding habitat for eight of the nine bird species found in the Antarctic. (After several years of construction, the completed project was eventually abandoned in 1994 after parts of a nearby glacier collapsed into the sea, causing a freak wave which damaged the cliff on which the airstrip was sited). Compounding the problem, most of Antarctica’s life-and the bases-are crowded onto the less than two percent of the continent that is ice-free year-round.


Without doubt, the worst-affected place on Antarctica has to be the Fildes Peninsula,” observes Sabella, referring to an area on King George Island in the Antarctic Peninsula, where Russian, Chinese and Chilean bases are found in close proximity to each other. “There are bases built on moss beds, fuel and chemical drums spilling over on plant life, there’s an airstrip, a lake being used as a landfill-it’s appalling. Large moss beds of the kind that were found at Fildes are incredibly rare in Antarctica; this was a special place, but now it’s a mess.”

Not all the damage to Antarctica is direct-both ozone depletion (caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) and global warming (the result of carbon dioxide buildup) have taken their toll. Isidro Bosche and Deneb Karentz of San Francisco University have discovered that starfish embryos grow abnormally when exposed to high levels of ultraviolet rays in the spring, when the Antarctic ozone hole is at its worst, and similar effects have been studied in icefish eggs and the seedlings of some plant species.

According to Montana State’s Frasier, recorded mid-winter temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by four to five degrees over the last 45 years. Probably the most visible impact attributed to the warming climate in the Antarctic has been the collapse in 1995 of the north Larsen Ice Shelf.

Scientists are noticing the first possible effects of global climate change on Antarctica’s wildlife, too. Studies have shown long-term declines of around 43 percent in some Adelie penguin populations (possibly the result of decreasing winter sea-ice, which Adelies use as breeding areas).

Should the UN be in Charge?

Concerned that a small number of countries were poised to divide up Antarctica among themselves, the member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement began agitating for United Nations stewardship of the Antarctic. Many environmentalists, however, viewed that proposal with suspicion, believing that the motivation was less to ensure maximum representation in the Antarctic debate than it was to buy time for other countries to catch up to the infrastructure already developed by Treaty nations. Instead, they began to lobby for the declaration of Antarctica as a World Park, free from commercial exploitation of any kind.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a loose grouping of no

n-governmental organizations (NGOs)-which now numbers about 240 groups in over 40 countries-began traveling to treaty meetings in 1975, to lobby delegates and push for more protection. They soon had powerful support for their arguments. Beginning in 1985, Greenpeace undertook a series of expeditions to Antarctica, designed to: monitor the impacts that various bases were having on the environment and wildlife, conduct research, and generally act as Antarctica’s de facto watchdog. Greenpeace’s base was inhabited year-round by teams of four or five people, and erected near the hut from which British explorer Robert Falcon Scott launched his fabled but ill-fated assault on the South Pole in 1911. It was the first-and, to this day, only-permanent scientific base to be established on Antarctica by a non-governmental organization.

Undeterred by the growing criticism, the Treaty nations pressed on with their efforts to develop a mineral exploitation scheme and, by 1988, had drafted a series of guidelines. It seemed as if the deal was all but done, but opposition was steadily growing. The potentially disastrous impacts of oil exploration on polar ecosystems were highlighted by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and, one month later, by the sinking of the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine Antarctic resupply ship which doubled as a tourist vessel.

All of that helped kill the mining deal. To be adopted, the convention had to be agreed to by all 26 nations that negotiated the treaty; and in 1989, following strong lobbying from groups such as the Cousteau Society, Australia and France announced they no longer supported it. By the end of 1989, the terms of reference in the Antarctic debate had changed completely.

“It was incredible,” says Sabella. “Just like that, everything changed. They all put their hands up and knew they were beaten, and before we knew what was happening, suddenly we were talking about a Protocol.”

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty-frequently referred to as the Madrid Protocol, after the city in which it was agreed-was signed by Treaty members in 1991. It designated Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. It drew up strict new environmental standards on human operations in the Antarctic. And, most importantly, it imposed a ban on mining and mining exploration for at least 50 years.

If there was a downside to the Protocol, says Beth Clark, it was that it fostered a sense of complacency. Greenpeace dismantled its base and largely wound down its Antarctic campaign; other groups decreased their involvement or moved on to other issues. But the events in Madrid were just a start; and already, only six years later, much of that progress could be undone.

The Abuse Continues

Japan remains the sole holdout in ratifying the Protocol, which needs the approval of the full Antarctic Treaty before it can come into force. Even when that happens, as it is expected to, there is no guarantee that signatures will translate into practical changes on the ground in Antarctica. Indeed, Greenpeace expeditions in 1993 and 1995 revealed an array of continuing abuses-from siting fuel depots in tern breeding areas and chemical drums on moss beds, to dumping waste into the sea or using lakes as landfills-that are blatant breaches of the Protocol’s provisions. The staff of at least one base in 1993 expressed complete ignorance that the Protocol even existed.

Meanwhile, run-down and abandoned bases litter the continent, and although some countries have made efforts to clean up behind them, none have followed Greenpeace’s example and removed an entire base. Many failed to even remove all their garbage: a 1993 Greenpeace expedition found penguin carcasses ensnared in barbed wire left behind at an abandoned, and allegedly cleaned-up, British base. It took a Greenpeace team of eight people just two hours to tidy up the wire. Pete Wilkinson, a former Greenpeace campaigner who led the organization’s first Antarctic expeditions, intends to take a systematic approach: he has formed a company, Polar Ventures, to focus solely on cleaning up the mess.

Even assuming that such abandoned and existing bases could be suitably cleared up, it is still by no means certain that the mining story is entirely over. In February this year, the South Korean News Agency quoted a senior official at Korea’s Maritime Affairs-Fisheries Ministry as saying that South Korea was planning on setting up a new base for “explorations of mineral resources and offshore oil [and] studies on marine resources,” to contribute to “securing territorial rights for mining blocs of underground resources.” Korea now insists that was a misrepresentation of its position, and that the country will continue to abide strictly by the Protocol.

For Alan Hemmings, an Antarctic environmental consultant and member of a panel that advises the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Antarctic issues, the problems facing Antarctica at the dawn of the 21st century go beyond a hangover from the earlier grab for territory and mineral rights. After a brief spell when everyone took a step back and agreed that Antarctica should be protected for its own sake, it is once again, he says, being looked at more for the goods and services it can provide.

“In a sense, the Protocol was a high-water mark of the environmental awareness of the late 1980s and early 1990s,” he says. “It provided very strict guidelines for the protection of an area for its own sake. Now, the political climate is much less forgiving. It’s noticeable in such things as the growth in tourism. Whereas once it was the last great wilderness, now Antarctica is being marketed as just the newest, most exotic travel location.”

Eco-Touring Antarctica

Tourism in the Antarctic has been growing dramatically. In the 1996-97 season, 13 tour vessels carried a total of 7,322 paying passengers to Antarctica. This figure is expected to rise by more than 10,500 during 1997-98, and is projected to steadily increase to around 14,250 in the 2001-02 season.

Darrel Schoeling of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) defends the growth of tourism to the Antarctic as creating a constituency of concerned individuals who, moved by experiencing Antarctica for themselves, become ardent defenders of its conservation. “Lars-Eric Lindblad, who pioneered Antarctic tourism, said that you can’t protect what you don’t know, and IAATO sees part of its mission as creating ambassadors to the last continent,” he says.

Schoeling also points out that the tour operators worked out their own voluntary code of conduct for visitors to the Antarctic, which has since been incorporated into Antarctic Treaty guidelines for all human activity on the continent. According to the guidelines, visitors are not to approach wildlife too closely, tread on fragile plant life or leave litter.

Few environmentalists advocate a ban on tourism-in fact, Schoeling observes that some expeditions are in fact sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution or the World Wildlife Fund. In addition, Montana State’s Frasier notes that long-term studies of tourism in the area of Palmer station in the Antarctic Peninsula have so far failed to demonstrate any negative impact on the wildlife or environment. Nonetheless, many are concerned that tourism’s apparently unchecked growth

-and particularly the arrival of new, giant cruise ships such as the Marco Polo, which can carry up to 800 passengers-is playing Russian roulette with the sensitive Antarctic ecosystem. Environmentalists have urged the operators not to run tours to previously unvisited, largely pristine areas, at least until there is greater understanding of the possible impact.

Already there are signs that the growing number of people visiting Antarctica, both as tourists and at scientific bases, is creating severe stresses. Species of non-native grasses, presumably carried on the clothing of visitors or scientists, have been found in several sites in the Antarctic Peninsula and on the continent itself. Dr. Clive Evans of New Zealand’s University of Auckland believes that the amount of waste that has developed in Winter Quarters Bay in McMurdo Sound is so severe that it is affecting fish in the area.

“You just have to look under the ice, and there’s all kind of fuel drums and the like from when garbage just used to be left on the ice,” Dr. Evans says. “We’ve gone down to Winter Quarters Bay, and done molecular biology tests on fish, and found that they have been exposed to huge levels of hydrocarbons, which have been shown to induce tumors, damage gill structure and cause reproductive ailments. Around the corner, away from the U.S. base, things seem pretty much normal-but, as far as I’m concerned, I’d call these fish sick.”

Over-Fishing

Perhaps the most extreme example of the growing commercialization of Antarctica, however, is a recent surge in Southern Ocean fisheries. Although much-hyped, by supporters and detractors alike, the fishery for Antarctic krill has not yet developed to the extent once anticipated. Krill-tiny shrimplike creatures that are a staple food item for many whale species-perish quickly and need to be processed on board large factory vessels. It is an expensive and capital-intensive industry, with, as yet, no particular demand for the end-product. But because overfishing has left high-tech factory fleets desperately searching for new markets, widespread krill exploitation could occur.

Of more immediate concern is the threat to such Antarctic fish species as the Patagonian toothfish, which can reach six and a half feet in length and weigh 65 pounds, and which fetches up to $7,000 per ton in Japan and the U.S.

The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which governs fisheries in the region, has set a catch limit of 23,000 tons, but has come under criticism for its management of Southern Ocean fish stocks. In the past, it has been taken to task for failing to prevent the collapse of Antarctic cod around South Georgia, and there is concern that the Patagonian toothfish could be headed the same way. The legal catch quota (there is also much illegal fishing) was established despite an almost complete lack of data on the species’ status in Southern Ocean waters.

CCAMLR members, says Hemmings, are exceeding the set quota or taking toothfish out of season, and fishing fleets are being re-flagged in such states as Vanuatu, Belize, Panama and Namibia to avoid regulations. CCAMLR is presently powerless to do anything about the “pirate” fleets. Most worrying of all are reports that China is building a fleet of some 200 vessels specifically to head south and catch toothfish. If true, observers say toothfish populations could be devastated in just 18 months.

So the Antarctic wheel could turn full circle. As Hemmings explains it, the primary motivation for countries wanting to fish in the Southern Ocean is “because of the mess they’ve made of it elsewhere, because of declines and collapses in what might be called more traditional fish stocks in the northern hemisphere.”

And that, of course, was precisely the motivation behind the first wave of Antarctic exploitation, led by the sealers who wiped out fur seal populations in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the factory ships which wiped out the Southern Ocean’s whales this century. That same notion-that Antarctica was the logical next step when resources elsewhere are in decline or otherwise hard to come by-prompted the move toward a mining convention.

“The Antarctic has suffered a great deal of exploitation, particularly in the Southern Ocean,” says Clark. “Despite that, the continent at least still remains essentially pristine. The big question is whether it’s going to be allowed to stay that way. Nobody’s saying that Antarctica should be completely off-limits to human activities. Not many are arguing that there should be no commercial fishing in the Southern Ocean. Right now, we have a choice: we can continue the way we are going, exploiting resources throughout the world and moving into the Antarctic when nowhere else is left. Or we can decide that one part of the world, at least, is going to be treated differently, left largely alone and allowed to remain the way it has been for millions and millions of years.”

KIERAN MULVANEY was a leader of three Antarctic expeditions with Greenpeace, the subject of a forthcoming book. He is presently a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.