1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2007  
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Contents >> Discovering the continent of ice - Antarctica in world history


Image: Discovering the continent of ice: Antarctica in world history

Dr Tom Griffiths
Dr Tom Griffiths is a Senior Fellow in the History Program of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His book on Antarctic history, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica, will be published by UNSW Press in 2007.

Only in the last century have humans started to come to terms with the massive continental ice cap clinging to the southern pole of their planet. Having polar ice caps has been rare in Earth history and having two at once may be unique. In a period of human-induced global warming, it is easy to forget that we inhabit an Ice Age, or at least a relatively warm period of one called an interglacial. A temporary retreat of the ice introduced our interglacial just 10,000 years ago and the awesome ice of Antarctica that we marvel at today is the most impressive remnant of the continental glaciation which once overwhelmed land in warmer latitudes. Ice sheets four kilometres deep sit upon Antarctica, and deposits almost as thick envelop Greenland. But the southern ice cap is by far the most significant in terms of size and influence. Around 90% of the world’s land ice and 70% of Earth’s fresh water are locked up in that Great South Land. There is so much ice down there, gripping onto Earth, that it distorts the globe into a slight pear shape. It took people a long time to realise that Antarctica was much colder than the Arctic, and that it constantly affects the climate of the rest of the world.


Was there a Great South Land? That geographical question stimulated exploration of high southern latitudes for five hundred years, from the 1400s to the 1900s. From the earliest classical cartographies, belief in the existence of a Terra Australis was tenacious. Australia and Antarctica - once linked in deep geological time - were united in the European geographical imagination. But neither was to satisfy the northern hemisphere expectation of a vast, rich continent spanning the Southern Ocean. Captain James Cook voyaged adventurously through seas ‘pestered with ice’ in 1772-75 and circumnavigated Antarctica without ever quite being sure if it was there. From his vantage point as the first human to cross the Antarctic Circle, he gazed further south with both foreboding and intuition. He was convinced by the character of the ice that there was a nucleus of land at the pole. But if it was there, it held no promise: ‘If any one go further south than I have been’, declared Cook, ‘I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery’.
    In the mid-19th century, the desire to understand and map terrestrial magnetism brought voyagers face-to-face with great ramparts of ice. Following the location of the North Magnetic Pole by the British naval officer James Clark Ross in 1831, there was a competitive quest to locate the South Magnetic Pole in the years 1837-43. Three expeditions voyaged south, taking magnetic readings around the edge of Antarctica: they were led by Dumont d’Urville of France, Charles Wilkes of the American South Seas Exploring Expedition, and James Clark Ross in his British ships, the Erebus and Terror. Ross happened upon the huge embayment that came to bear his name (the Ross Sea) and was thus able to voyage furthest south. He discovered a mountain of ice and fire - the volcanic Mt Erebus - but he also encountered an awesome shelf of ice towering above the masthead which he called the ‘Barrier’, for it stood between him and his goal. He was reluctant to acknowledge that he was butting up against the floating edge of a vast continent for it would mean giving up on his dream to sail all the way to the South Magnetic Pole (Mawer, 2005).
      Voyagers found it difficult to distinguish land from clouds, land from ice and land from islands. The visual phenomenon of ‘looming’ brought distant sights deceptively close, big black clouds ‘looked like raised land’, and discoloured icebergs were closely scrutinised. Sailors were ‘dying to see’ the blackish colour of earth. With picks and hammers they secured fragments of ‘the mineral realm’, loading their pockets with rocks and carrying off penguins as trophies. Rocks were of more than scientific interest; they were crucial geopolitical footholds. Explorers in southern seas hungered for land to claim. But the existence of a continent under the ice was not confirmed until the 1930s and the great depth of the ice cap was discovered only in the 1950s.

      Map of the 1st and 3rd years' tracks of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1914 – slide from John George Hunter collection, courtesy National Library of Australia.Map of the 1st and 3rd years' tracks of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914 - slide from John George Hunter collection, courtesy National Library of Australia.


      The first people to step ashore on Antarctic lands were probably sealers making a living at the edge of the known world. Sealing took off in the far south in the wake of James Cook’s reports of island colonies of glistening creatures, and it was sealers who became the incidental (and sometimes secretive) discoverers and explorers of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic coastlines. The history of sealing and whaling in the Southern Ocean offers a stunning, repeated pattern of discovery, over-exploitation and rapid decline, as new islands or oceans were invaded and swiftly exhausted. Remarkably quickly and with ruthless efficiency, British and American sealing ships stripped the rocks and beaches bare of the animals, slaughtering fur seals for their pelts and elephant seals for their blubber oil. Up to 60 seals might be clubbed and skinned by an expert sealer in an hour, and it was usual for the whole of a colony to be exterminated in a raid. The thick, dark fur of the fur seals was in much demand for clothing, and as a result, many of the northern fur seal colonies had been hunted to extinction by the early-19th century. The elephant seals’ pelts were considered worthless for clothing, but their blubber was as good as a whale’s for the quality of oil it produced. The sealers’ arithmetic was that a barrel of blubber made a barrel of oil, and it was this oil that lubricated the machinery and burned the lamps of civilisation.

      The extension of commercial whaling into far southern seas in the late-19th century opened the heroic era of Antarctic exploration. By 1904 the famed Norwegian whaler and explorer, Carl Larsen, had established Grytviken, the first coastal whaling station on the island of South Georgia. Within ten years of Grytviken’s foundation, the humpback whale population was commercially exhausted. In the 1920s, Larsen pioneered the use of factory ships big enough to process a whole whale on deck, and this invention (which freed a ship from the need for a shore station) opened up hunting in the unregulated and remote seas close to the Antarctic coast. The 1930-31 summer became the season of the greatest number of vessels ever operating in the Southern Ocean - 41 factory ships and 232 whale catchers manned by 11,000 men as well as uncounted transport vessels. In 1937-38, this phase of pelagic or deep-sea whaling resulted in the killing of 46,039 whales in the Southern Ocean, almost 90% of the worldwide total taken that year. Pursuing a familiar pattern, the peak was followed by a collapse in the industry due to massive over-exploitation (Martin, 2001).

      This photograph was taken by the light of the midnight sun, shows the bow of the "Discovery" wending a way through floes and brash ice off the coast of Kemp Land. Antartica, 1929–31 – Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.This photograph was taken by the light of the midnight sun, shows the bow of the "Discovery" wending a way through floes and brash ice off the coast of Kemp Land. Antarctica, 1929-31 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.


      The ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration describes the two decades from the final years of the 19th century to World War I when Antarctica became the focus of intense private and patriotic endeavour. At the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London in 1895, scientists resolved that ‘the exploration of the Antarctic regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken’. Expeditions sailed south from Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, Germany, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Uruguay, and there was a simultaneous quest for the northern pole. Funded more from private than government sources, these expeditions were nevertheless inspired by nationalism. The age was ‘heroic’ not only because it generated tales of extraordinary individual achievement and sacrifice, but also because the explorers raced one another not so much to secure territory as to establish national pride and personal honour on the world stage. When honour rather than territory was primarily at stake, then ‘winning’ could take unusual forms.

      The two most famous ‘heroic era’ expeditions were strictly failures. Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions died in early-1912 after manhauling their sledges to the South Pole and most of the way back. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the Pole by five weeks. Scott’s inspiring letters and diary entries, written from the tent that would become his tomb, have become the sacred texts of Antarctic history. In 1914-15, Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic ice cap from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea never got started because his ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea. The story of how Shackleton and his men rescued themselves - and then rescued the marooned party waiting for them on the other side of the continent - is a tale of tenacity and hardship. The central icon of that saga is a small whaling boat, the James Caird, which carried Shackleton and five men across 800 miles of the stormy Southern Ocean to the whaling communities of South Georgia.

      The most adventurously scientific expedition of the heroic era, and one that put geographical exploration ahead of competitive nationalism, was an Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Douglas Mawson in 1911-14. Since the 1880s, Australians had talked of their special responsibility to investigate the Antarctic coast to their south, and Australians had joined expeditions led by Carsten Borchgrevink (1898-1900), Scott (1901-04 and 1910-13) and Shackleton (1907-09). In 1911, Mawson established a base on the edge of the East Antarctic ice cap at Commonwealth Bay and launched a comprehensive scientific programme in new territory. But the expedition also had its heroics. Mawson survived a traumatic sledging journey during which he lost both his companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. Ninnis was swallowed by a crevasse and disappeared with most of the food, forcing Mawson and Mertz to begin a desperate journey home. On that march Mertz died of malnutrition and Vitamin A poisoning from eating the livers of the sledge dogs, and Mawson nursed him to the last. Alone and with still more than 100 miles to go, Mawson battled on, falling down crevasses and hauling himself out again with a rope ladder that tied him to his sledge. On 8 February 1913 he picked his way down the final, steep slippery slope to the hut in time to glimpse his ship, the Aurora, steaming out of the Bay for another whole year. Six men had stayed behind in case their leader returned. Mawson staggered back to the hut just three days before the story of Scott’s death broke upon the world.

      The Aurora, Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914 – Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.The Aurora, Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.


      In the 1920s a more pragmatic geopolitics quickened in Antarctica, and romantic, masculine heroics morphed into harder-edged territorial theatrics. There was, as the Adelaide Advertiser declared on 8 April 1929, ‘A Scramble for Antarctica’ that might echo the famous ‘Scramble for Africa’ among European powers in the late-19th century. Commercial whaling was intensifying along the edges of the ice. Britain had established the Falkland Island Dependencies in 1908 and the Ross Sea Dependency (from New Zealand) in 1923 in order to regulate, and profit from, whaling in those sectors. In 1924 the French responded by claiming Adélie Land on the basis of Dumont d’Urville’s sighting of that part of the continent in 1840. Adélie Land was in the middle of what Australians had come to consider their quadrant of Antarctica and so it suddenly became urgent to formalise that understanding. Mawson urged the Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, to challenge the French claim and act with Britain to secure Australian administration of its Antarctic lands.

      In 1929, therefore, Robert Falcon Scott’s old ship, the Discovery, was fitted out again to go south, and it was captained by John King Davis and led by Sir Douglas Mawson. This was the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (or BANZARE). The 1926 Imperial Conference had agreed to assert Britain’s dominion over all of Antarctica - to paint the whole continent red, as one British official confidentially put it in 1928. The two BANZARE voyages of 1929-31 inverted the priorities of Mawson’s first (AAE) expedition of 1911-14, for they were ‘firstly, political; secondly, economic and commercial; thirdly, scientific’. Mawson’s secret instructions from the Australian Prime Minister were to ‘plant the British flag wherever you find it practicable to do so’.

      Mawson’s discomfort with the primarily political goals of his latest expedition - however much he believed in its aims - was palpable, and claiming something as slippery as ice was fraught with frustration. Like those earlier ships, the Discovery found it hard to locate continental rock. But on 13 January 1930, Mawson and a party of men landed on a small rocky island (which they named ‘Proclamation Island’) off Eastern Antarctica, climbed to its summit, built a cairn, erected a flagpole, raised the Union Jack, and read an official Proclamation at noon that vested all territories between longitudes 73 degrees (73°) east and 47° east, and south of latitude 65° in His Majesty King George the Fifth His Heirs and Successors for ever. Three years later, the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act (1933) (Cwlth) formalised the transfer from Britain to Australia of sovereignty over all this ice (Collis, 2004).

      Cheering the flag... A scene on the heights overlooking Proclamation Harbour, Enderby Land, where the Union Jack was raised by Sir Douglas Mawson and his colleagues. At the foot of the flagstaff, official records were buried in a sealed receptacle.Cheering the flag... A scene on the heights overlooking Proclamation Harbour, Enderby Land, where the Union Jack was raised by Sir Douglas Mawson and his colleagues. At the foot of the flagstaff, official records were buried in a sealed receptacle. The Discovery can be seen at right of picture, 1929-31 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.

      If Norwegians ruled the Antarctic seas in the interwar period, it was the Americans who colonised the continent. Americans were less traumatised by World War I than Europeans, and led the return to Antarctica. Richard Byrd became the dominant Antarctic figure of the late-1920s and the 1930s. He was a handsome, charismatic Virginian who had established his fame as an adventurous airman, and he aimed to implant a society in Antarctica, not just a lone hut in the wilderness, but a ‘city’, a mini-civilisation. His three chief instruments of exploration were the radio, the aeroplane and the aerial-mapping camera. In 1928, he took 82 men south and established what he called a ‘colony’ of half-buried huts on the Ross Ice Shelf and named it ‘Little America’. The centrepiece of Byrd’s expedition was a flight to the South Pole, which he achieved on 29 November 1929. The Australian Hubert Wilkins had made the first Antarctic flights from Deception Island in November-December 1928.

      Claims of Antarctic territory continued to escalate. In early-1939 an expedition from Adolf Hitler’s Germany bombed Antarctic ice with hundreds of cast-iron swastikas, each carefully counterbalanced so that it stood upright on the surface. This rain of metal spears was reinforced by the landing of a shore party which planted the flag ‘to secure for Germany her share in the approaching division of the Antarctic among world powers’. In the early-1940s, Britain and Argentina battled over the possession of the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands. Stamps, post offices, maps and films were weapons of war in a region which, depending on your nationality, was known as Tiera O’Higgins, Tiera San Martin, Palmer Land or Graham Land. In February 1952, Argentinian soldiers fired machine-guns over the heads of a British geological party trying to land at Hope Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. The following summer, in retaliation, British authorities deported two Argentinians from the South Shetlands and ordered troops to dismantle Argentinian and Chilean buildings on the islands. Immediately after World War II, in 1946-47, America’s Richard Byrd led the largest ever expedition south (his third), called ‘Operation Highjump’. The ‘operation’ involved 4,000 personnel, a dozen icebreakers and an aircraft carrier. An official Navy directive of 1946 identified the expedition as a means for ‘consolidating and extending United States of America (USA) potential sovereignty over the largest practicable area of the Antarctic continent’. In 1950, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) announced its renewed interest in Antarctic exploration, occupation and sovereignty. The Cold War and other conflicts had found their way to the coldest part of the planet.

      Since before the War, Douglas Mawson had been lobbying the Australian Government to consolidate its Antarctic claims and to continue the job that his BANZARE voyages had begun. So, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) was founded in 1947. Bases were established on Heard and Macquarie Islands and, in 1954, Australia’s first continental station was inaugurated. At 5:00 pm on 13 February 1954, the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Phillip Law, gathered his men on the small sloping area of granitic rock on Horseshoe Harbour and officially named the station ‘Mawson’. Today it remains as the oldest permanent station on the continent.


      The launching of the Russian spaceship, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957 seemed to many in the West a threatening symbol of escalating Cold War rivalry. But in Antarctic skies it was welcomed as the culmination of a huge, cooperative human endeavour. Sputnik was the most visible efflorescence of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 (known as IGY). IGY was the single biggest cooperative scientific enterprise ever undertaken on Earth, a hugely successful intervention of science into politics, and it was centred on Antarctica. It cut through the increasing cacophony of post-war territorial rivalries down south.

      International Polar Years had previously been declared by the scientific community in 1882-83 and 1932-33, but they had focused almost entirely on the Arctic. In the 1950s, the idea emerged that there should be a third polar year, at a time of an expected peak in sunspot activity, and the plan quickly grew to include coordinated scientific observation of the whole globe - an International Geophysical Year. It was agreed that Antarctica would become the priority, as well as those other regions now made newly accessible by technology - outer space and the ocean floor. Nearly 30,000 scientists from 66 nations took part at locations across the globe. In Antarctica, twelve countries were involved: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, USA and USSR. During IGY, the number of stations rose from 20 to 48, and the wintering population increased from 179 to 912. The summer population in Antarctica reached almost 5,000. Free exchange of data between nations was part of the agreement, and there was a constantly expressed intention to put science before politics. For 50 years the main motives for Antarctic work had been national honour and territorial conquest and scientific work was, in general, of secondary importance. As Phillip Law said, ‘The IGY changed all this.’ (Law, 1962).

      Scientifically, the greatest advances were made in glaciology through increased understanding of the size and stability of the Antarctic ice sheet. Another example of the long-term benefits of the global scientific assault on Antarctica during IGY was the beginning of an investigation of the ozone layer - the thin skin of ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere - from the British base in Halley Bay on the Weddell Sea. Because of these studies in the 1950s, scientists in the 1980s were able to measure the dangerous thinning of the layer, which normally filters the Sun’s ultra-violet rays. Politically, IGY was such a resounding success that it cried out to be continued and institutionalised. The Soviet Union scientists needed IGY, or something like it, to give their science status at home and themselves some freedom abroad. Although the USA had initially sought the internationalisation of Antarctica with the aim of excluding the Soviet Union, it was now clear that any political solution had to include the USSR (Moore, 2004).

      Intensive diplomatic activity following IGY culminated in a draft for an Antarctic Treaty, the main object of which was to promote the peaceful use of Antarctica and particularly to facilitate scientific research in the area. It incorporated a compromise first proposed by Chile - that territorial claims should be frozen for the period of the Treaty but that nothing in the Treaty should be interpreted as depriving any party of a claim or, on the other hand, as recognition of a claim. Military activity and testing of any kind of weapons were to be prohibited within Antarctica. Information was to be shared and inspections of other nation’s bases allowed at any time. The Australian Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, helped to persuade the Soviet Union to accept the crucial provision about the freezing of claims (Hall, 2001). A conference was held in Washington, DC, USA in October-November 1959, and the Antarctic Treaty was signed by the twelve nations that had participated in IGY. The IGY had indeed achieved the unexpected. Science as an international social system had never before revealed itself to be so powerful.


      There is a famous story of Phillip Law arriving at Macquarie Island in 1950 to relieve a wintering party and finding everyone speaking to one another with theatrical 19th century gentility. The men had survived the winter by repeatedly working through their small film collection, and the group’s favourite was Pride and Prejudice. Once they tired of watching it, they turned down the volume and acted out the voices themselves. This ventriloquism easily tipped over into daily relations, and soon men were bowing and holding doors open for one another, and addressing their colleagues with sweet and elaborate civility.

      Following IGY, many scientific stations remained as permanent Antarctic bases, and wintering became a routine and challenging part of Antarctic life. The Antarctic winter night is more than two thousand hours long and has been described as ‘the hardest personality test on earth’. Since 1993 Australian Antarctic men and women have participated in research for the USA's National Aeronautics and Space Administration because the Australian stations, not yet accessed by regular aircraft, experience some of the longest and most isolated winters. Antarctic wintering is an ideal analogue for long-term space exploration.

      Antarctica was the 20th century’s prime site for boys’ own adventures, and they were very much their own. The ice was a masculine place, to be defended, where women might be imagined and missed but never seen or held. There was resistance to women visiting Antarctica at all, and then to women wintering, and then to women working in the Antarctic interior. The media reported the arrival of women on the ice as ‘invasions’ and ‘incursions’. But a list of firsts gradually accumulated - first woman on the continent (Caroline Mikkelsen, wife of a Norwegian whaling captain, 1935); first women to winter (Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington, 1946-47); first women at the South Pole (six Americans jumped hand-in-hand from the ramp of a transport plane, 1969). But the real challenge was to have women accepted as normal members of expedition parties. By the end of the century it had become commonplace for women of many nations to be station leaders.

      In an Antarctic Fairyland... A dazzling glimpse of Berg and Floe off the coast of the Kemp Land. The Discovery passed through some hundreds of miles of similar scenery, 1929–31 – Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.In an Antarctic Fairyland... A dazzling glimpse of Berg and Floe off the coast of the Kemp Land. The Discovery passed through some hundreds of miles of similar scenery, 1929-31 - Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia.


      Discovering and using Antarctic resources - especially minerals and marine animals - had always been one of the spurs to exploration, and Douglas Mawson and Phillip Law both found no contradiction between conservation and regulated industry. The Antarctic Treaty did not explicitly deal with resource politics, and from the mid-1970s this began to seem a fundamental and possibly fatal flaw. In 1973 the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries restricted production and oil and natural gas prices sky-rocketed. In 1975 Antarctic Treaty nations agreed to an informal moratorium on possible mineral development in preparation for a more formal approach to the question. Knowledge of possible offshore oil and natural gas reserves in Antarctica was growing and by 1980, experts believed that exploratory drilling for these resources was only a decade away. The terms of the Antarctic Treaty dictated that a review of its operations was possible after 30 years. A new political regime was brewing in Antarctica, and from the late 1970s, the number of states acceding to the Treaty increased significantly.

      In December 1983, partly due to the escalating resource politics, the United Nations (UN) became officially involved in Antarctica for the first time, although there had been earlier attempts to make UN control of the continent possible. The UN General Assembly adopted a draft resolution on ‘The Question of Antarctica’ as a result of arguments by Asian and third world nations that the continent should be managed as the common heritage of humanity. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, led the campaign, arguing that the Antarctic Treaty was a relic of colonialism and seeking greater democratisation of decision-making. The treaty powers, led by the Australian Ambassador to the UN, Richard Woolcott, responded with defensive unanimity, for this was an issue that brought together even the USA and the Soviet Union, and Britain and Argentina. Woolcott pointed out that Malaysia had only to accede to the Treaty if it wished to participate more actively in Antarctic affairs.

      In 1982 Treaty nations initiated negotiations over a Minerals Convention, the purpose of which was not to initiate mining in Antarctica but to set down rules should it ever happen. Many environmentalists believed it was better to have a regime than no regime. After six years of drafting and debate, all Treaty nations agreed to adopt a Convention for the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) in Wellington, New Zealand, in June 1988.


      Meanwhile, an alternative vision of the future of the ice had been gathering political momentum. Antarctica was envisaged by many not only as a realm of peace and science, as established by the Treaty, but also as a ‘nature reserve’ or a ‘world park’. The earliest international agreement in the Antarctic had concerned conservation. In 1935 the League of Nations brought into force an International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, although it was to prove ineffective. Following the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, several landmark conservation measures were negotiated: the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna in 1964, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (London, 1972) and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Canberra, 1980).

      In January 1987 the international pressure group that united the ecology and disarmament movements, Greenpeace, established a station on Ross Island in Antarctica, called ‘World Park base’. It was the first long-term non-governmental base to be established in Antarctica, and its practical purpose was to document and expose the environmental effects of humans on the ice, and to provide a focus for the campaign to have Antarctica declared a world park. Their photos of the giant rubbish dump at the USA station, McMurdo, swiftly led to a revolution in waste management practices and strengthened international pressure for an environmental protocol.

      In 1988, after Treaty nations had agreed to adopt the Minerals Convention, the Australian government invited community debate on the issue. Thousands of citizens wrote letters of protest, Greenpeace and other non-government environmental organisations intensified their public campaign for the environmental protection of Antarctica, and political support in the Australian Parliament began to swing behind exploring alternatives. On 22 May 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke committed his government to what he called ‘Mission Impossible’: to reject CRAMRA and argue for the protection of Antarctica as a nature reserve and province of science.

      This was a huge political gamble. Management of the Treaty is by consensus, and so a single dissenting nation is enough to derail an agreement. By refusing to sign, Australia was committing itself to an international diplomatic mission. Other Treaty nations responded to Australia’s stance initially with disbelief and then with bitter opposition. But, over a period of 18 months, the Australian Government won support first from France, and then Italy and Belgium, and gradually built a new consensus against mining and in support of a new environmental regime. The dramatic oil spills of the Exxon Valdez in the Arctic and the Bahia Paraiso in the Antarctic in 1989, with their dramatic images of slicked polar seas and suffering wildlife, strengthened the hand of the environmental campaigners. On 4 October 1991 a Protocol on Environmental Protection was signed by the Treaty nations in Madrid, Spain. It declared a 50-year ban on mining in Antarctica and put into place comprehensive and legally binding measures to protect the Antarctic environment.

      The negotiation of the Madrid Protocol, which was ratified by all parties by 1998, was a successful test of the robustness of the Antarctic Treaty and represented a dramatic shift from a resources view to an environmental view of the continent. A constant challenge for post-War endeavours down south was to build the significance of science in Antarctic culture. The Madrid Protocol greatly empowered science, not just as a currency of prestige but as an urgent and practical requirement. It ensured that research was no longer ‘a side issue’, although it certainly remained subject to political, strategic and bureaucratic pressures.

      In the second half of the 20th century, a geographically marginal continent became intellectually and environmentally central to the world. The challenge of the post-War period for Antarctic research was no longer simply to find out what was down there, but rather, to integrate sustained Antarctic science into the mainstream of global research. Antarctic science made itself fundamental to world concerns about climate change, ocean processes, marine biodiversity and human environmental behaviour. Antarctica had emerged as a sensitive barometer of global health. ‘In the old era of Antarctic research,’ reflected scientists, ‘people used their knowledge of the rest of the world to find out what was in Antarctica. In the new technological era, we use our knowledge of Antarctica to learn about the rest of the world’ (McCracken, Young & Bird, 2002).


      Thousands of tourists now visit Antarctica every summer. Who was the first Antarctic tourist? Was it Carsten Borchgrevink who paid for his berth on the whaling ship, Antarctica, and claimed to have bustled ashore first at Cape Adare in 1895, ensuring that the first person to set foot on Eastern Antarctica was a tourist? Or perhaps it was Captain Oates who paid £1,000 for a place on Scott’s last expedition? It is generally accepted that Antarctic tourism officially began in 1966 when the Swedish entrepreneur, Lars Eric Lindblad, took fare-paying passengers on a ship to the Antarctic Peninsula, thereby establishing the pattern that has prevailed ever since. Up to the end of the 1970s, about 17,000 people had visited Antarctica by cruise ship, overwhelmingly to the Antarctic Peninsula. In the 1980s, almost that number again of ship-based tourists visited. By the early-21st century, that many people were visiting Antarctica by ship in a single summer. Still more tourists flew over Antarctica or visited by plane. By 2004, the leader of Aurora Expeditions, the renowned Australian mountaineer Greg Mortimer, could say that he had travelled to Antarctica ‘about 100 times’ (Mortimer, 2004). He believed that the increasing number of visitors so far posed little threat to the Antarctic environment and that the chief challenge for tourism management was the protection of the wilderness experience itself. In a sense, everyone in Antarctica is a tourist. Scientists and tradespeople as much as tourists are attracted to Antarctica by its purity, silence and otherworldliness. Although humans have now encompassed the great ice cap, drilled into its preserved history of climate and staked it out with permanent bases, Antarctica remains a continent where nature is humbling and humans are always just visitors.


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