Keeps the Peace
U.S. Antarctic science is at a crossroads
as the wider world presses in
MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA
AN TARC TICA invites exploration. Its surface resembles that of a distant planet. It has moisture-free air and crys-
tal-clear ice, ideal for the kind of exacting mea-
surements dear to astronomers and physicists.
And its miles-thick glaciers are center stage
for the study of one of humanity’s direst envi-
ronmental challenges. All that has drawn hun-
dreds of scientists from dozens of U.S. colleges
to take advantage of the brief Antarctic summer
and a variety of research opportunities under-
written by the National Science Foundation.
But the science, however cutting-edge, isn’t
the only point of bringing American scientists
to this vast, forbidding continent. They’re also
players in—and beneficiaries of—a U.S. geo-
political strategy dating to the 1940s. Under a
treaty signed in 1959, Antarctica is reserved for
peaceful, cooperative scientific research, and
the State Department sees keeping the three
American research stations here—including
the one at the South Pole—staffed year-round
as “essential” to U.S. interests.
That’s not to suggest that the research taking
place here is insignificant. In fact, scientists en-
dure the rigors of working in the icy Antarctic
climate to find answers to questions as vexing
as the winter nights here are long. Bradford A.
Benson, of the University of Chicago, is peering
into the heavens to decipher the origins of the
universe. Jeffrey P. Severinghaus, of the Univer-
sity of California at San Diego, is digging deep
into the ice to learn how the planet responded
to high doses of atmospheric carbon in the past.
Joseph S. Levy, of Oregon State University, is
studying exotic microbes in hopes of unlocking
secrets behind the creation of life.
Those projects and many more now stand
to be shaped by a White House-commis-
sioned review, due this year, that could lead
to an overhaul of the U.S. program in Antarc-
tica. And the decisions facing the commission
could hinge on whether it believes Antarctic
science is as important as Antarctic politics.
Articles and photographs
by PAUL BASKEN
benefits of maintaining a presence on the
continent and thereby helping to head off the
possibility of overt hostilities. Some 30 coun-
tries now have research stations here, gener-
ally following the spirit of scientific coopera-
tion set out in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.
Relations among countries working in Ant-
arctica haven’t always been that harmonious.
In 1952, Argentine forces fired shots over the
heads of British scientists in a bid to press Ar-
gentina’s claims to nearby Antarctic territory.
Just last month, a major oil find near the Falk-
land Islands revived tensions between Britain
and Argentina over that territory—and raised
the specter of renewed competition for natural
resources in and around the lands they claim
in nearby Antarctica.
More online and in iPad edition
O “Bundle up” doesn’t begin to cover
the logistical considerations
researchers in Antarctica.
O Fluctuations in
the penguin population
intrigue scientists but aren’t necessarily
signs of climate change.
Audio slide show:
O In the Antarctic
summer, the scientists come out
“If the Antarctic Treaty were to break down,
then who knows what would happen?” says
Adrian Howkins, an assistant professor of his-
tory at Colorado State University who has stud-
ied the continent. Because of that fear, he says,
geopolitical motivations have “been entwined
with the science from a very early stage.”
In general, though, the link between poli-
tics and science here has worked to science’s
advantage. After the last thorough review of
Antarctic policy, in 1977, the White House
pushed through a $174-million replacement of
the South Pole station, with geopolitical con-
cerns a chief motivator. The head of that review,
Norman R. Augustine, was chairman and chief
executive of the defense contractor Lockheed
Martin. He said the South Pole station was es-
pecially important among the three U.S. facili-
ties because its location straddles almost all past
Antarctic land claims made by rival countries.
The current review of U.S. policy, also be-
ing led by Mr. Augustine, could lead to an
even bigger overhaul.
The most pressing questions center on Mc-
Murdo, the largest of the three U.S. research
stations and the supply hub for the South Pole
site and for dozens of seasonal field stations
around the continent. As the point of entry
into Antarctica for most American researchers
and their equipment, McMurdo relies on air-
ports built over the ice-covered ocean and on
an ever-changing cast of icebreaking ships and
cargo vessels for large-scale deliveries by sea.
But the station, established in 1955, is show-
ing its age. Its infrastructure is outmoded, and
its warehouse-like facilities are deteriorating.
Challenges and Perks
For researchers, working in Antarctica has
both benefits and drawbacks. Access is tightly
controlled by a combination of the unforgiving
environment and the government-run program
that caters specifically to the needs of the scien-
tists—transporting them, housing them, feeding
them, even giving them coats, hats, and boots.
Compared with how many scholars go about their
work elsewhere—lugging their own equipment,
booking their own hotel rooms, and negotiating
their own way through foreign countries—doing
research here can be a pretty good deal.
And Congress thinks that the U.S. Antarc-
tic Program, which costs more than $300-
million a year, is a good deal for taxpayers.
Administrations dating back to World War
II have recognized the political and military
Swaddled in mandatory “extreme cold weather” gear, scientists and other staff members take
a five-hour flight from McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base in Antarctica, to New Zealand.
Members of the current White House commis-
sion, Mr. Augustine says, have been touring Ant-
arctica and meeting with experts in a bid to find
alternatives to McMurdo that would have both a
deep-water port and a permanent airfield. “We’re
looking,” he says. “They’re hard to find.”
For the researchers who depend on McMur-
do and the Antarctic Program, what to do about
McMurdo is a potentially momentous decision.
During the 12 years it took to build the new
South Pole station, the construction project ate
into not only research outlays but also crucial
transportation capacity—925 cargo flights were
needed to deliver all the building materials.
Similar worries about the effects on sci-
ence loom over the forthcoming decision. For
instance, U.S. law and the Antarctic Treaty
set out environmental protections for the
continent, and the researchers need uncon-
taminated surroundings for their work, so
bulldozing hillsides around McMurdo for an
airport on land would present problems. But
so does continuing the constant 18-mile pa-
rade of cargo, people, and fuel lines out to the
main Pegasus airfield, on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Similarly, an entirely new location for the
supply operations now housed at McMurdo
could create serious complications for re-
searchers with experiments and long-term
study programs now located at the base or
in the immediate area. Greatly improving
transportation options also could put new
pressures on the environment by appealing
to tourists and corporate interests.
Indeed, tourists are already a growing pres-
ence. They’re increasingly seen on private
boats off the Antarctic coast, and some tour
packages include skiing and camping near the
in this issue
Click to subscribe to this magazine
article text for page
< previous story
next story >
Share this page with a friend
Save to “My Stuff”
Subscribe to this magazine