Nature s laboratory

  • 14/08/1997

Nature s laboratory  'laboratory' is an odd name for a place that receives 10,000 visitors every year; where various organisations involved, recognise its heritage responsibilities and preserve old buildings and whose historic locations feature on ever more cruise liner tourist brochures. If you have a few thousand dollars to spare, you too can visit such watering holes as Paradise Harbour and Port Lockroy with magni-ficent wildlife. It doesn't have any marinas yet, but yachts have been regular visitors, even intrepid single handers. It is wild and beautiful and is, of course, Antarctica - a place where a lot of scientific fieldwork goes on with a bearing on the environmental health of our planet. It is regularly called a laboratory, since by international agreement, all military and industrial activities are banned and only scientists live and work there.As laboratories go, it is rather large at 13 million square km.

Antarctica was always a place of extremes and very difficult to get to. It could be rightly said to have been discovered only in the last century. Europeans made a habit of 'discovering' places that were perfectly well known to native inhabitants and had been for thousands of years. But Antarctica never had any human inhabitants. So Cook, Bellinghau-sen, Ross, Weddell, Biscoe and the like, have a right to be admired as its discoverers.

The initial exploration was not all that easy and those on the mission had to even lose their lives, least to say face a difficult time.

Things are different now. You can have a shower at the American base, at the Pole itself. It is still a McDonalds free zone but the food is more varied than the pemmican and seal meat of the heroic age. Eighteen countries maintain year-round bases here, with about a thousand scientists. Aircraft whisk people from base to field camp. Radio communications link everyone and you can telephone home through satellite. The big 'white laboratory' is comprised of many small laboratories which have advanced equipment, each dedicated to a specific scientific quest. The data sets, which began in the heroic age over 90 years ago, with simple maps of sea ice shelves and weather records, are now of great value in a warming world.

The ice cover up to 4.8 km thick, is perhaps the most valuable of all the features of Antarctica, with its record of past atmospheres in the trapped air bubbles. The ice core drilled at the Russian base called Vostok, provides information on the last 160,000 years including the last ice age and the one before it. It has provided a record of past atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and air temperatures and the traces run parallel to each other.

If all the floating ice shelves break up, the glaciers on land would flow directly into the sea and so might drain Antarctica of ice more rapidly. This would add water to the oceans and raise sea levels by up to 5m. The ice shelves are already afloat so their melting does not affect sea level, nevertheless their progressive disappearance is ominous. Around 8,000 square km of ice shelf has been lost from the Antarctic peninsula (the area which arcs up towards Cape Horn) since the 1950s and it is now believed that there is a climatic limit of viability for ice shelves, which have been pushed southwards in recent years.

Exciting though the Antarctic laboratory is to the environmental scientist, it is even more so to the geologist. It was the core of Gondwana land 180 million years ago and the mantle plume that broke the continent up into the distinct plates that carried Australia, South America, India and Africa into their present positions, appears to have come up under the Weddell sea - a place still regarded as relatively inaccessible in the Antarctica of today.

One result I noticed might, however, raise a smile on the face of a diplomatic humourist. The Falklands Islands, so vehemently declared to be a part of South America, actually acquired their individuality just off South Africa, it appears, not far from the present day Durban. I was led to speculate on the potential of plate tectonics to confuse or attenuate other diplomatic confrontations such as those in Cyprus, Israel, East Timor, Gibraltar, and perhaps lots of places not too far from the Himalaya. Admittedly, it all began a long time ago, but so did most quarrels. Except in Antarctica that is, where there were never any human inhabitants until very recently, and those who are there today, peacefully study the machinery of the planet for the illumination of us all.

Peter B Stone is a journalist based in the UK.

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