Future of Antarctica causes concern

Antarctica is governed by the 44 nations who are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty. Mission Antarctica

An international expedition has removed 1,000 tons of rubbish from a Russian research station in Antarctica.

This content was published on April 2, 2002 minutes

One of the main sponsors of the project is Ernesto Bertarelli, chief executive of the Swiss biotechnology company, Serono.

Our reporter, Vincent Landon, travelled to Antarctica to witness the clean-up. In the fifth and final part of his Antarctic diary, Vincent discovers that weather dictates events on the white continent.

Part Five: The future

"I'm frightened of this place," said British polar explorer, Robert Swan. "Antarctica always frightens me because I know what it can do. I've been right in the middle, where this weather comes from."

Wind and waves are determining our agenda on Mission Antarctica's yacht. The original intention was to head to Admiralty Bay and visit a Brazilian base, but during breakfast the wind picked up from six to 26 knots in the space of half an hour and much worse was on the way.

As we approached the sheltered harbour after six hours at sea, 40-knot winds gusted across the bay, picking up water and burying the first two metres of the boat.

"When we went round the corner, the water was just being picked up by the wind and carried across the bay," said skipper Andy Dare.

Safe mooring

In addition, the wind was blowing away from the glacier sending lumps of ice in our direction. This poses enormous difficulties for steering because the top of the waves are also white and you can't see a long way ahead.

As a result, the crew turned the boat around for the 30-kilometre run to Bellingshausen and the safety of the mooring near the Russian base.

"The safety of the boat is the most important thing," said Andy. "The boat's immensely strong, but any boat can sink if you hit a piece of ice."

Back at Maxwell Bay, the weather continued to dog us and we were forced to wait eight days for a plane to pick us up.

"Here we are at the end of the world and I think in many ways it's good you can't do everything by schedule in a world where people normally get upset if you're five minutes late with an aeroplane," said Robert.

Preserving Antarctica

During those eight days, I met a Chilean fossil hunter and a German ornithologist, walked up glaciers, listened to seals, and attended an endless series of farewell parties at the Russian base.

The long delay provided plenty of time to consider why Antarctica is worth preserving.

"It's a pristine environment. It's the last continent on earth that is still very much as it always has been," said second mate Alex Johnston.

"We've managed to mess up the rest of the planet. At least we've got one continent left. If we can try and keep it as pristine as we can and clear up what mess we have made, hopefully we will have something for the future."

Alex pointed out that in previous centuries, sealing and whaling had already had a marked effect on Antarctica. In the 1800s, some 1.2 million fur seals were killed in the South Shetland Islands. Between 1904 and the closure of the last whaling station in 1965, more than 175,000 whales were taken in Antarctic waters.

Environmental indicator

"Antarctica is also a very good measure of what we're doing to the planet," said Alex, referring to the evidence of ozone depletion as well as the climate record of the last half a million years, revealed by drilling through the four-kilometre thick ice sheet.

"It's a continent which nobody owns," said skipper Andy Dare, when asked what makes Antarctica unique.

The continent is governed by 44 nations who are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol. Seven nations have made claims to Antarctica, but no single nation controls any part of it.

In August, Robert will report on his activities with Mission Antarctica to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Meanwhile, the expedition's yacht is currently sailing from the tip of South America to Cape Town, where she will be transported overland to Johannesburg for the summit.

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