A Clash Over Antarctica's Future Is Deepening

A Clash Over Antarctica's Future Is Deepening

A cruise ship passes grounded icebergs off Cuverville Island along the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the few areas on the continent that is open for commercial tourism.

SourceAnirban Mahapatra

Why you should care

The future of this geographic wonder is at stake. 

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For more than a century, Antarctica has quietly survived as a theater for research, trade and fascination for generations of humans. But now, the deepening footprint of mankind is clashing against a web of global laws and norms meant to safeguard the pristine continent — the world’s largest landmass that isn’t claimed by any one country, and that genuinely belongs to all. And the outcome of these emerging battles could shape the future of Antarctica.

As dusk falls over Antarctica, a colony of penguins perches on the shelf of a giant iceberg to spend the small hours of the night. Their primary sustenance comes from a shrimplike crustacean called krill — found in copious amounts in the Southern Ocean — that forms the dietary base for most marine animals in the Antarctic. But a burgeoning krill-fishing industry to meet increasing market demand for krill oil–derived wellness products has begun to take a toll on the population density of the creature. About 5.6 million tons of krill are currently harvested in the Southern Atlantic, the primary catch area for the species. For penguins, the depletion could potentially mean having to swim out farther from their colonies and rookeries in search of food. Though regulations have recently been put in place to control the harvesting of krill, it may take years before krill populations are adequately restored. This is a crisis that has been decades in the making.

While the South Pole was reached for the first time (by Norwegian Roald Amundsen) only in 1911, human presence in Antarctic territories dates back well into the previous century. After the Southern Ocean had been charted by pioneering voyagers (beginning with British seafarer James Cook as early as 1773), the lure of commerce attracted several European whalers and sealers who came to seek their fortunes in these pristine lands. But these early businessmen saved Antarctica’s location as a trade secret for decades, so the continent wasn’t discovered earlier. This grave, on Deception Island, is that of a Norwegian whaler who worked at a whaling station that was operational between 1911 and 1931, in the early decades following Amundsen’s polar expedition.

One of the most gripping stories of survival in the Antarctic wilderness goes back to 1903. In February that year, with winter just around the corner, a Swedish expedition suffered a dreadful setback when their ship was trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. As the ice closed in to crush and sink their vessel on February 12, a group of 20 men — led by shipmaster Carl Anton Larsen — navigated through shifting ice for 16 days to reach a volcanic outcrop called Paulet Island. Having built themselves a rudimentary stone hut, the men then camped through the harshest phase of winter on the island, surviving on a reserve of penguin meat they had stocked up before darkness set in. Nineteen of the men were eventually rescued in November, after surviving through eight months of the Antarctic winter. The ruins of their hut, seen in this image, still stand on Paulet Island as a reminder of the incident.

Antarctica’s fauna also faced its share of threats through the 20th century. Here, a humpback whale gracefully flukes its tail in the water, somewhere in the vicinity of the South Shetlands Archipelago. Until 1986, when it was officially banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), commercial whaling was a thriving industry in several countries where whale oil was in great demand as a raw material for products such as lamp fuel, margarine and soap. Unsurprisingly, Antarctica too had whaling stations, the remains of some of which are still seen on various islands (the Southern Ocean was declared a whale sanctuary by the IWC, with a complete ban on whaling, in 1994).

In the past, several countries (such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and the U.K.) have laid claim to Antarctica as their sovereign territory. In 1961, to discourage such claims, an international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) was put in place to ensure that Antarctica — while allowing access to people from around the world — would never be subject to the gainful interests of any particular country. Initially signed by 12 nations, the ATS now has 53 members. It bars activities such as weapons testing, nuclear explosions, waste disposal, dumping of radioactive material, killing of wildlife and mining or drilling of natural resources for economic purposes. The ATS is a vital mandate that set the course for the conservation of the Antarctic environment, pictured here in the auburn glow of a setting sun.

Most countries that are signatories to the ATS maintain permanent research stations in Antarctica — many of which are staffed around the year — either on the mainland or on the islands. Here, a tourist walks around the remnants of an abandoned research base, formerly operated by the U.K., on Deception Island. Scattered across the continent, some of these bases nominally mark their respective nation’s presence and participation in Antarctic affairs, while others are actively used to gather data and conduct experiments for furthering scientific understanding of both Antarctica and the greater world. This particular base, equipped with an airstrip, was established in 1944 for carrying out meteorological studies as well as providing logistical air support for scientists venturing into the deep field. It was shut down in 1967 following a volcanic eruption, before being permanently abandoned in 1969.

Antarctica now has more visitors than ever. Here, an expedition ship navigates its way through a field of grounded icebergs off Cuverville Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. Located about 1,000 km south of Cape Horn (the bottommost point of continental South America), the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the very few areas that are currently open for commercial tourism in Antarctica. Human activity is rife here: Between December and February every year, a number of luxury cruise ships specially outfitted for polar expeditions ply these waters, bringing in close to 40,000 tourists over the course of the Southern summer. To minimize the impact of tourism on the environment, stringent rules and operational guidelines have already been put in place, although many say that despite the regulations, recreational human presence is bound to have an adverse effect on the ecosystem of the peninsula.

Ushuaia, Argentina, seen here, is reputedly the world’s southernmost city, and is now a popular starting point for cruise vessels heading to Antarctica. The capital of the Patagonian province of Tierra del Fuego, this settlement of around 60,000 people is located on a bay that opens out to the Beagle Channel, a narrow sea passage that lets ships navigate their way out of Ushuaia’s natural harbor and into the Southern Ocean. Populated through the early 20th century as part of a penal resettlement program, Ushuaia sees a flurry of touristic activity during the high summer season from December to February. Thousands of tourists pass through town on their way in and out of destinations such as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the Falkland Islands, the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

With human involvement in Antarctica poised to increase in the future, strict regulations have been spelled out to ensure that no evidence of human activity — save the proverbial footprint — is left behind by people visiting the continent. But the rules don’t apply to several pieces of historic jetsam, left behind by human enterprises of the past. These include debris from the precincts of former whaling stations, nonoperational units of obsolete machinery, the derelict remains of abandoned sheds and storage facilities or even the crumbling buildings of former research bases. Many of these relics are flaking trash into their surroundings, but, designated as Historic Sites and Monuments (HSM), they are now beyond the possibility of removal. Here, a tourist stands dwarfed by a row of giant tankers (possibly for the storage of whale blubber oil) lining the beach at Whalers Bay, an HSM in the South Shetland Islands. It’s that tussle between exploration and conservation that may well determine Antarctica’s future.

Lemaire Channel, close to the Antarctic Circle, is usually as far south as commercial Antarctic expeditions typically go on their itineraries; only a few tourist vessels are known to venture past the Circle in any given season. Here, a group of expedition tourists explore the frozen surrounds of an icy bay off Lemaire Channel. Shore landings are not possible at such extreme latitudes, and the only way to get close to marine life is on board inflatable rubber dinghies generically called Zodiacs. Given their ability to operate with minimal turbulence in water, Zodiacs keep the disturbance of marine life to a minimum and are thus a preferred mode of sightseeing in Antarctica. However, some contend that an increase in overall Zodiac movement can indeed become a chief form of human interference in the future.

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