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I went to a fascinating talk at the British Library, entitled What Does the Antarctic Mean?, part of the Cook’s voyages exhibition season. The talk was chaired by journalist Julia Wheeler, who has written books on both the Antarctic and the Arctic, and featured Jane Francis (Director of the British Antarctic Survey), Damon Stanwell-Smith (Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), Jane Rumble (Head of the Polar Regions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London).

The talk began with a discussion on the significance of Antarctica. Jane Francis emphasised the importance of Antarctica to science, and explained how the continent influences the world: the climate, sea level rises and tides. Klaus Dodds said that 200 years ago, people tended to see as ice as sublime, awesome, terrifying, and now that relationship has been flipped on its head as we have become aware of the human power over ice. He also talked about the imaginative aspect of Antarctica, and mentioned the Antarctic Treaty, which inspired other treaties including those involving space.

Jane Rumble pointed out that 200 years ago no one knew Antarctica existed: its importance has increased in a very short space of time. It is the only place in the world with no wars, no territorial claims. Damon Stanwell-Smith confessed to amazement that a continent larger than North America hasn’t been colonised, and talked about how Antarctica is something you feel – there is nothing like being there.

The group then discussed the Antarctic Treaty. Dodds explained that this treaty was negotiated over 6 weeks in 1959, and involved the 12 parties who had participated in the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. This was during the middle of the Cold War – there was a worry that such collaboration would not continue.

There were many issues. The UK, Argentina and Chile claimed the same territory – could they come to blows? The Australian president was convinced that Russian communists wanted to establish bases in Antarctica, while the USA had seriously considered nuclear testing. The treaty nearly didn’t happen – especially thanks to Australia, France and Argentina. The treaty would only happen if all 12 countries passed it; there was a deliberate decision to avoid mention of mineral resources or there would have been no agreement.

Rumble then discussed the UK’s territorial claims in more detail, starting with the 1908 claim to the Antarctic peninsula region. There was some discussion on whether the UK should claim the whole thing; in the end they didn’t, but they did cajole the Commonwealth nations Australia and new Zealand to claim. France joined in, then Germany tried in the 1930s, following which the British supported Norway’s rival claim. As a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, was first to the South Pole, that country’s claim should really have been considered earlier, but at the time Norway was a small newly-independent nation and nobody really took them seriously.

Chile and Argentina placed their own claims during World War II. In 1943 the UK set up the first permanent presence in Antarctica – Operation Tabarin. The US put their base at the South Pole, while Russia put theirs in the Australian bit and refused to move. Despite all this, there is still one unclaimed sector, the most remote.

Rumble discussed the huge amounts of scientific collaboration taking place in Antarctica among scientists, who tend to ignore politics. Shared science programmes abound, including a new joint UK/US project investigating a glacier. If it melts, there will be a sea level rise of over 5 metres. Francis pointed out that when the climate changes, it changes at the Poles first, so Antarctica is the perfect place for this research.

Stanwell-Smith talked about the sometimes-controversial business of modern commercial tourism. This began in the late 1960s and has gone from strength to strength ever since. Most visitors are from North America and other anglophone countries, but there has been an increase in Chinese visitors. In the last year there have been more than 50,000 visitors (of whom 9,000 were on cruises – and did not get off the ship), a rise of 17% from the previous year.

Stanwell-Smith argued that allowing visitors is important, albeit in an appropriate way. Most people who visit have a fascination with Antarctica; perhaps they are older and have a long-held ambition to go. Visiting Antarctica also allows the importance of the continent to be emphasised. Francis pointed out that far more than these visitors, the main problem is people who treat the continent like an adventure playground: such as Guirec Soudee, a French man who is travelling around the world with his pet chicken, Monique. It sounds like a fun story, but there was a very real risk that the chicken could have passed on avian flu to the native penguin population.

Dodds spoke about the challenging relationship between tourists and scientists: some scientists see tourists as a distraction, but public outreach is now recognised as an important part of a scientist’s role. Dodds also pointed out that Antarctica still has a very small number of visitors for such a large place.

Finally, Rumble was asked about the most important aspect of Antarctica to the UK government, and responded, ‘Peace and stability.’ A strong treaty system is very important and science is a clear priority.

I really enjoyed this fascinating talk.