CHAPTER - 2: General Survey Of Antarctica

2.1 Introduction
Antarctica is the last terra incognita on the Earth, covered with snow and ice that surrounds the South Pole. Men's minds were haunted by the idea of a great southern continent for many centuries before Antarctica was discovered. Earlier, the ancient Greeks believed that a great southern continent must exist in order to balance the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere. The name of the region has come form the Greek ‘Antarktikos’ which means ‘Opposite the Bear’, the northern constellation, i.e., the ‘Opposite of the Arctic’.
2.2 Famous Voyages
Many famous voyages were made to discover the fabled continent because men imagined it to be populated and to contain great riches. It was on January 17, 1773 that Captain James Cook of the British Navy became the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle, and brought to an end the dream of an inhabited southern continent. In 1820, Captain Nathaniel Plamer of Stonington, Connecticut, and Commander Thaddeus Bellingshausen, an officer in the Russian Navy, sighted the continent near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The real proof that Antarctica was continent came form the adventurous voyages of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, Captain Dumont d`Urville of the French Navy, and James Clark Ross of the British Navy in 1838-1841.
After Wilkes, d' Urville, and Ross returned to their homelands, men lost interest in Antarctic exploration. For nearly 50 years, only sporadic endeavours were made to learn more about the mysterious white continent, although sealers and whalers continued their operations to the far south for hunting whales and seals.
Shortly after 1890, interest in the Antarctic revived, to continue for ever, because the scientists were then convinced that more must be learnt about the South Polar region if we are to understand the world and the Universe better. Moreover, new methods of whaling made it possible to catch and use Antarctic whales for the prospect of riches from fur and blubber oil.
2.3 Scientific Expeditions to Antarctica
In 1901, German, Swedish, and British Expeditions took to the field. All had their thrilling times. Their experiences proved that men could live in the Antarctic from what they could find there, although a diet of seal and penguin was somewhat monotonous. In 1901, Captain Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy lead the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904). It could be said to be the first Expedition to Antarctica, which had very strong scientific interests. Enough scientific information was then collected to put Antarctic studies and research on a sound basis. From 1901-1912, Scottish, French, Japanese, German, and Norwegian Expeditions were active in the area.
2.4 Conquering of the South Pole
The climax of the heroic period came in 1911 and 1912 when the South Pole was reached. First to arrive there was the great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen with his four companions, on December 14, 1911. On January 17, 1912, about a month after Amundsen, Captain Scott and four other Englishmen stood on the same spot. On their return from the South Pole, misfortune followed their footsteps. Captain Scott and his party were trapped by a blizzard and never returned home. Captain Scott had collected 30 pounds of rocks for scientific interests. This was really a triumph for science.
A distinguished Australian scientist, Mawson was one of the truly great Antarctic explorers, who in 1911-1914 set up a camp there, at what is perhaps the windiest place in the world. Winds of over 100-200 miles an hour are very frequent there. A young British naval officer, Lieutenant Earnest Shackleton took his first Expedition to the Antarctic in 1907. The Antarctic entered his heart never to be absent until his death. In one of the greatest adventures, Shackleton and his men spent over six months in tents on drifting ice. He lies buried in South Georgia, the gateway to Antarctica and his grave is a shrine to all who pass that way.
2.5 Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration with Technological Advancement
The period from 1895 to 1915 has sometimes been referred to as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. The period following World War I can be thought of as the beginning of Mechanical Age. The urgent demands of the War speeded the development of the airplane, the aerial camera, radio and motorized transport and all of these devices were introduced into Antarctic Exploration before 1930. Sir Hubert Wilkin, Australian leader of the American financed Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition made the first airplane flight in Antarctic history on November 26, 1928. In fact, it was Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd who proved the usefulness of the airplane in Antarctica and brought modern machines and methods of communications to the area.
Some Expeditions dug trenches in which buildings were placed with the hope that snow would blow across the covered trench with minimum accumulation. Prefabricated buildings were commonly used in Antarctica and for small stations, vans called wanigans have often been used. Looking like house trailers on skis, they were pulled into place by tracked vehicles. Because the wanigans can be moved, it is possible to relocate them on the surface as snow piles up. It was not until the advent of new technical advances such as aircraft, radios and aerial photography that the bulk of the Antarctic coastlines and interior were first crudely mapped in the late pre-World War II period. Afterwards much improved technical development further stimulated interest in exploring the continent.
2.6 International Geophysical Year (IGY)
The first big step toward a long-range scientific effort was taken in 1956-57. To continue the international scientific co-operation that was so important a feature of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) established a Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). The Committee develops broad programmes in which it identifies subjects for investigation, and the ICSU establishes goals to be achieved and describes uniform methods for collecting and presenting information.
2.7 Antarctic Treaty
Permanent occupation also made it desirable to regulate political relationships in the Antarctic because prior to the IGY, seven Governments had laid claim to portions of Antarctica while three of the claims overlapped one another. In 1959, an Antarctic Treaty extending for 30 years was signed by 12 nations then actively exploring Antarctica. They were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed on December 1, 1959 and became effective on June 23, 1961 when the last ratification was received. Since 1959, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have also joined. Signing of the Treaty opened Antarctica to unrestricted scientific exploration in a true spirit of international co-operation. With the advent of the Treaty, the Antarctic continent developed into a scientific laboratory of the first order where extensive research is being continued since the IGY.
2.8 Involvement of India in Scientific Exploration of Antarctica
India became involved in scientific research in Antarctica as a result of an agreement between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Hydrometerorological Service (HMS) of the earstwhile USSR for joint meteorological exploration of the upper atmosphere. Under this agreement, the author Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra was the Project Scientist with the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition and became the first Indian ever to winter over the South Pole and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent. A brief account of the author’s participation in the Expedition is given separately in this book.
The great bulk of knowledge about Antarctica has been accumulated since the mid 1950s. Before that, information was acquired slowly because Antarctica is not only remote but its access is too limited and difficult. In only a few places does this continent extend north of the Antarctic Circle, an imaginary line around the Earth at about 66* 33' South latitude. Including its permanently attached ice shelves, Antarctica covers about 14 million square km, an area about the size of the United States and Mexico combined.
Over countless years, snow and ice have built up on the land burying all but 4.5 percent of it. It is the fifth largest continent and has the highest average elevation of about 2.5 km and is overlain by a continental ice sheet containing more than 90% of the world’s ice. If this ice were to melt, sea level would rise at least 75 metres. Antarctica has about 29600 km of coastline and off the shore there are many islands which are also ice-covered. They too are considered to be part of the South Polar region usually called the Antarctic.
2.9 Antarctic Convergence
Surrounding the Antarctic are the confluent portions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These waters are notoriously the stormiest in the world because there is nothing to break the force of the persistent winds. Warmer tropical waters meet with cold Antarctic waters in a remarkable discernible climatic and oceanic boundary ranging to the 50th parallel known as the Antarctic Convergence.
This circumpolar line which varies considerably with longitude but generally within and not more than a degree or two of latitude per year establishes a boundary between sub-temperate and sub-Antarctic zones. South of the Antarctic Convergence the waters are characteristically ice-laden and abound with sub-polar aquatic life. It is a feeding region for myriad’s of pelagic sea birds, the world's largest population of seals and of whales. Sealing and whaling have provided Antarctica with its only economic activity, the former was conducted principally in the sub-Antarctic islands and the latter on the high seas.
2.10 Antarctic Landscape
Along the coast piedmont glaciers, ice tongues and ice shelves discharge flat-topped icebergs into the sea. Tabular icebergs are unique to Antarctica and in some cases may be hundreds of square km in area. Where glaciers have receded along the periphery of the continent, there occasionally occur cold, arid deserts described as ‘dry valleys’ or ‘Oases’, their total area constitutes 5600 square km. Farther inland, the gentle rolling surfaces of the ice-cover and creased regions in places reflect the hidden topography, and the nature of the sub-ice relief is also plainly apparent from the rugged mountains and nunataks which dominate the interior landscape.
Seismic and gravity exploration also indicates vast low lands, some depressed below sea level beneath the existing ice sheet. The Antarctic continent has a diameter of about 4500 km and is asymmetrically divided by the Trans-Antarctic Mountains into two sub-continents, East and West Antarctica. Extensive low-quality bituminous coal outcrops to within 320-480 km of the South Pole yield plant fossils which portray an earlier age when the land was forested. About 640 km from the South Pole were found some fossil remains of primitive fresh water amphibia and reptiles known as labyrinthodonts and the codonts. A reptilian skull identified as Lystrosaurus establishes the former existence of the great southern continent Gondwanaland.
2.11 East and West Antarctica
About three-quarters of Antarctica lies in East Antarctica which appears to be more contiguously a continental mass. The sub-surface beneath the ice is extremely rugged except west of Victoria land where it appears to be an extensive plain close to sea level; the maximum elevation (more than 4000 metres) occurs slightly east of the pole of inaccessibility. Almost all and certainly the most extensive ‘oases’ occur in East Antarctica. Mount Melbourne and Mount Erebus, both active volcanoes in the McMurdo Sound region are in the East and West Antarctica, respectively.
West Antarctica which includes Marie Byrod Land, Ellsworth Land and the Antarctic Peninsula is the smaller sub-division and generally lower in elevation. Ice soundings have shown this region to be largely in ice-covered archipelago; much of the central area is occupied by the Byrd sub-glacial basin with a depth as much as 2500 metres below sea level. Ice thickness between the islands ranges to 4270 metres with elevations 1200-1800 metres above sea level. Volcanic activity in historic times is identified with Deception Island.
2.12 Antarctic Life
In sharp contrast to the lushness of sea life, the continent is virtually lifeless and devoid of the familiar vegetation features seen on other land masses. It is without forests, brush or grass lands and lacks river, estuaries and marshes. Antarctica has no native land vertebrates and its fresh water fauna consists of microscopic forms. The major vegetation of lichens, bryophytes and algae rarely rises over 5 cm above the ground. The dominant land organisms are arthropods, mites, springtails and a wingless midge. However, during the short austral summer millions of sea birds, penguins and seals migrate to Antarctica, competing for space on ancestral breeding grounds and bringing to the silent continent the noise and activity of life.
2.13 Antarctica - Least known continent
Even with the tremendous effort since 1955 to unlock its secrets, Antarctica remains the least known of continents. This fact alone should ensure that explorer-scientists will be going south for a long time. Even now, scientists are developing techniques which will broaden their horizons and suggest to their imaginations new subjects for Antarctic research.

There are, for example, data recording machines powered by radioactive isotopes. Thus far they have been used primarily as automatic weather stations and some difficulties have been encountered in getting them to operate properly in the Antarctic environment. These problems, however, can be solved allowing expanded use of such devices. A network of automatic stations would offer the meteorologist a many fold increase in the number of observations available for both forecasting and the study of climate. Similar data-recording machines can be used in other studies.
2.14 Use of Satellites in Antarctic Research
Satellites in polar orbit offer other possibilities. By radios, satellites could receive information from automatic observatories in Antarctica and retransmit it to laboratories and weather centres around the world. Satellites may also help to solve one of the great problems in Antarctic operations which is the loss of communications. Satellites already have their place in Antarctic meteorology, and geophysical satellites passing over the area have obtained information unavailable to observers on the ground.
Satellites carrying different sensing equipment appear to have numberless uses in the Antarctic. Very little is known about the ice-pack, the floating belt of sea ice that surrounds the continent. Although satellites orbiting a hundred or more miles up can play a part here, a closer look will also be necessary. Small submersibles carried by an icebreaker will be undoubtedly useful in the Antarctic waters.
2.15 Economic Prospects of Antarctica
The future of the Antarctic as a scientific laboratory seems assured but its natural resources are not much. The most easily reached are those of the sea. Since the 1890s, the whales of the southern oceans have been hunted for their oil and meat. International agreement, however, has failed to adequately protect the stocks, and whaling is a declining industry - perhaps a dying one. There are, though, the vast quantities of plankton on which most Antarctic life is based, and the Japanese and the Soviets have been investigating whether plankton can be used for human nourishment. The abundant life of the southern seas may contribute notably to the future of mankind.
Development of Antarctica's mineral resources is a remote event. At present both the nature of these resources and their extent are imperfectly known. Even if the mineral resources prove to be valuable, the techniques for exploitation do not now exist. It would be, however, unwise to say that the necessary techniques cannot be developed. The Antarctic has modest prospects for tourism and its seas have real possibilities as source of food.
2.16 Antarctica as a Scientific Laboratory
The pursuit of scientific knowledge will long be the main attraction of Antarctica. Scientific data will remain the chief export and the men who obtain it will continue to be the principal inhabitants. No monetary values can be placed on scientific discoveries but anything which expands man's understanding of his environment will help him improve his condition. In 1966, Peter Scott, son of the famous Captain Scott visited the Antarctic and he pointed out that half the scientific research now drawing the explorer-scientists to the area is on topics not even guessed at in his father’s days. It is predicted that new fields requiring polar research will continue to appear because the future of Antarctica is strongly linked to the future of science itself.
2.17 Streching of the Antarctic Ozone Hole
The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has stretched over a populated city of Punta Areuas in Chile for the first time in the year 2000, after ballooning to a new record size. Previously, the hole had only opened over Antarctica and the surrounding ocean. Citing data from the US Space Agency NASA, atomospheric scientists have found that the hole covered 29.3 million sq km which is an area more than three times the size of the United States.
For two days between September 9 and 10 in the year 2000, the hole extended over the world’s southernmost city of Punta Areans in Chile, exposing its residents to very high levels of ultra violet (UV) radiation. Too much UV radiation can cause skin cancer and destroy small plants. The above findings have shown for the first time a city being exposed by the Ozone hole. The longer it gets, the greater the chances of populated areas being hit by low ozone levels according to the latest scientific research in this field.

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