Antarctica is the southern-most continent – cold, dry, windy, and contains 90% of all ice on earth. Its size varies through seasons and in winter, the expanding sea ice along its coast doubles the continent’s size. Interestingly Antarctica is classified as a desert as it only receives an average of 2 inches of snow each year (in comparison Sahara Desert in Africa gets twice as much rain each year) but what makes it an icebox is that Antarctica gets massive blizzards that pick-up snow and blows white blankets across it with temperatures reaching as low as minus 89.6 degrees Celsius.
How does life below zero look like? Plant life is limited to algae, moss, and lichen but animal life is in abundance. Home to marine wildlife and birds , penguins including Emperor penguin colonies ( the largest of the penguins that weighs around 23kg as an adult) are found dotted across its coastline. Krill (small shrimp-like creatures as shown in picture below) are a critical part of the food chain and a vital food source for whales, seals, sea-lions, and penguins. It is estimated that the total weight of Antarctic krill is more than the weight of all humans on Earth. But despite krill abundance, they are a keystone species serving as a backbone of the Antarctic ecosystem and if they disappear, all marine life that feeds on them would also become extinct.
So, who owns Antarctica?
No single country owns Antarctica. This continent is shared by all of humankind and governed by the Antarctic Treaty that reserves the continent for peace and scientific research. There are around 70 permanent research stations led by 32 countries that focus on several critical issues such as climate change, global sea-level rise, conservation of wildlife, sustainable management of fisheries in the face of increasing demands for fish and krill, ozone concentrations, astronomical observations etc.
India has two research stations — Maitri and Bharati that are operated under the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Union Ministry of Earth Sciences. The 40th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica departed for the South Pole from Mormugao Port, Goa with 43 members on board on January 5, 2021 with a key goal of continuing global research as well as relieving the earlier 48-member winter crew from their 15-month tenure, resupplying the research station bases with food, fuel, provisions and spares for operations and maintenance of life support systems.
What makes Antarctica so unique for research and important to sustain?
Ice dynamics: Disappearing ice is making Antarctica more accessible but melting icesheets and ice-shelves are profoundly contributing to global sea-level rise with the runaway ice emptying into the sea triggering unstable icebergs and abrupt loss to Antarctic ice. Being one of the cleanest places on Earth, it is also one of the first places where effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide are seen making it an ideal location to measure spread of global pollutants. Antarctica has a central role in the study of global climate change research, ozone depletion and sustainable management of its marine life.
- Astronomical observations: This is the best place to look at the cosmos as it is very clear, very dry and being so far from the equator, polar nights of 24 hours or more of darkness in mid-winter open a much wider window to view stars. Space satellites like the Hubble are very expensive and Antarctic ground-based telescopes can observe conditions on the surface of Mars and to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn at a fraction of the cost.
- Mining, fishing, and oil drilling: The COVID-19 pandemic has not spared Antarctica too. Countries have slowed down their funding for research programs resulting in decreased operational capacity, delays in new and major projects and limited abilities to train and recruit new talent for research. Antarctica is in the middle of geo-political tensions as few countries have expanded fishing and mining in the surrounding waters.
- Dangers of Krill fishing: Antarctic Krill catches have increased exponentially, and these are used as oil and feed in various applications like fortified food (infant milk formula) & beverages, feed for animals, dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals etc. for its high Omega 3 and fatty acids content. Krill Oil industry is growing steadily around 10% every year and projected to be valued over $500M in the next few years with China racing to complete the largest krill-fishing ship that can operate in the krill fishing grounds of Antarctica for extended periods of time.
- Oil drilling: Mineral extraction would be extremely expensive due to the extreme weather , ice and distance from other industrialized nations, but in the last one year , Russia has stepped up geological survey in the Antarctic region to assess oil, gas and hydrocarbon potential using latest technologies and this has fueled diplomatic tensions with other Antarctic member countries for environmental and political reasons.
In conclusion: Antarctica is indeed a heaven on earth, pristine and appears magical. But as the horrors of global warming unfold and the battle for land supremacy flares up, countries need to be watchful on not getting into territorial disputes but rather focus on scientific research. The need of the hour is an absolute regard for international agreements, commitment to adhere to base station inspections, enforcing lawful orders such as preventing illegal fishing, mining and more importantly share research intelligence in a collaborative manner as the healthy future of the Antarctic means a sustainable future for us all.