Research and Exploitation on Antarctica

Commercial exploitation

Many of the early journeys of exploration of the Antarctic were followed by chose whose interests were commercial. Only 15 years after Cook discovered South Georgia, scalers, mainly American, set up on the island and wreaked havoc on the seal population.

At one stage nearly 120,000 seal skins were taken in a year. The same thing happened after George Vancouver discovered Snares Island south of New Zealand in 1791: the seals were wiped our within 20 years.

And a similar pattern occurred on Macquarie Island, discovered in 1810 by Frederick Hasselborough, and the South Shetland Islands, discovered in 1819. Within ten years all the seals were gone. In 1881 the British government was forced to introduce regulations in order to control sealing.

Ernest Shackleton’s route
Tourists trek the lost few kilometres of Ernest Shackleton’s route into Stromness whaling station at South Georgia

Whaling was another industry to take advantage of the apparently inexhaustible bounty of the Antarctic seas in the early days. In 1904 Carl Larsen set up a whaling base at Crytviken on South Georgia and in 1923 established a factory ship based industry in the Ross Sea.

The use of these factory ships made whalers independent of fixed bases and soon Antarctic waters were thick with their vessels. An attempt was made to regulate the slaughter in 1937 when nine nations signed the International Convention on Whaling, hut to little avail: during the summer of that year whaling peaked, with a record number of 46,000 animals being taken.

In another effort to stem the depredations on whale populations, an International Whaling Commission was established after the war in 1946 but apart from protecting riglu whales and humpbacks in the Antarctic, it did little to conserve other species such as the blue whale. In the season of 1950-51 there were over 32,500 whales taken.

From 1962 onwards catches declined dramatically as stocks plummeted and the whaling station on South Georgia was forced to close due to the shortage. From this point whalers had to travel further with factory ship-based hunting. By 1982 the situation was such that the International Whaling Commission voted to end all commercial whaling from 1986 but due to a legal loophole so-called ‘scientific whaling’ has been able to continue.

The exploitation of resources is now carefully monitored. It was intended to ban mining for 40 years when the Minerals Convention was adopted in 1988 but this document was never ratified. However, although minerals such as gold and silver have been found in Antarctica, along with coal and iron ore, they do not occur in commercial quantities and so there is currently no mining activity.

Penguins, like many animals in the Antarctic
Penguins, like many animals in the Antarctic, don’t see people as a threat, enabling people to watch them at close range. A tourist here observes a chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica)

The possibility of danger from accidents resulting from oil extraction will have to be dealt with should future finds lead to exploitation. At present the main extractive industry is of Antarctic krill, which is used in food products for humans and domestic animals.

In order to protect the natural consumers of krill-whales, penguins, seals and other predators-the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, established in 1981, manages and monitors the numbers of krill-dependent predators as a safeguard against over-exploitation.

‘Today, however, the fastest growing industry in Antarctica is tourism. Apart from a few commercial flights in 1956, Antarctic tourism really began in 1965 with the advent of cruises to the area.

The most popular route is from Punta Arenas in South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. Air tourism restarted in 1977 with day rips by Qantas but only two years later tragedy struck when an Air New Zealand DC 10 with 257 people on hoard crashed into Mt Erebus.

Air travel is still the major tourist route between Australia and the Australian sectors because travelling by ship takes weeks. This guarantees that they will remain comparatively undeveloped as tourism destinations for some years to come.

Scientific research

The International Geophysical Year was held in 1957, heralding a big increase in the activities of scientists in the Antarctic. The number of bases established on the continent increased from 28 to 40 and includes one at the South Pole itself. Out of the IGY came the Antarctic Theory, signed in 1959 by 12 nations, including Australia, one of seven countries to claim territory in the region. The other six countries are Argentina, Great Britain, Norway, Chile, New Zealand and France.

Australia claims two gigantic tracts of land totalling 6 million sq. km (2315 sq. miles) or almost 42 per cent of the continent. This claim is based on the activities of Douglas Mawson and the later occupancy of the western sector with the establishment of Mawson Station in 1954. There has been no attempt by Australia to strengthen its claim ro the eastern sector by occupation.

Two outcomes of the Treaty when it came into effect in 1961, however, were that territorial claims are neither recognised nor refuted, but are held in abeyance and that the Antarctic continent south of 60°S is open to all for scientific research. Signataries currently number 44. Research is now, atleast ostensibly, the major reason for occupation of Antarctica although activities such as the birth of a child at an Argentinean base in 1978 may be aimed at bolstering territorial claims.

There are now over 40 permanent Antarctic bases and a number of abandoned or seasonal bases, ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) has four permanent Antarctic bases, three on the continent (Mawson, Davis and Casey) and one on Macquarie island.

The oldest, at Mawson, was set up in 1954; Davis, established in 1957, is the furthest south; and Casey, opened in 1969 as a replacement for Wilkes, was acquired from the Americans. The original ANARE base, at Atlas Cove on Heard Island, was abandoned in 1954 to set up Mawson and is now used only occasionally for summer visits although a party of five spent  11 months on the island in 1992, wintering at Spit Bay. These, then, make up the Australian Antarctic and Subantarctic outposts and together they add a quite fascinating dimension to the study of the natural history of Australia.

Some of the science conducted in Antarctica cannot be conducted elsewhere. As well as the biological studies of native animals and plants and investigations into the earth’s magnetic field and glaciology, the study of past climates through the evidence of ice cores and the gases trapped in air bubbles, has contributed significantly towards an understanding of the causes of global warming. Possibly the most spectacular success of Antarctic science was the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer in 1984. It was found that this gap had been there since as far back as 1970, but until that time had gone unnoticed by temperate zone physicists.

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