Antarctica Research Paper

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With most of its surface buried under two kilometers of ice, the world’s fifth largest and coldest continent is inhabited by fewer than five thousand international researchers. Antarctica, the surrounding waters, and the unique ecosystem they support have been reserved for scientific research by a series of international treaties.

Antarctica is the continent of superlatives. It is the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, and remotest place on Earth. The most southerly among the seven continents and the fifth largest, Antarctica covers 14.2 million square kilometers—about the size of the United States and Mexico combined. The continent is circular in shape except for the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out toward the tip of South America, and two major embayments, the Ross and Weddell seas.

Antarctica was long ignored, except by adventurers such as Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Richard E. Byrd, who explored the region in the early twentieth century. Between 1908 and 1942, seven nations (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) decreed national sovereignty over pie-shaped sectors of the continent. None of these territorial claims, however, is recognized as lawful by any other state. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958, twelve nations (the seven claimants plus Belgium, Japan, South Africa, Soviet Union, and the United States) established more than fifty stations on the continent for cooperative scientific study. This IGY experience became the impetus for the special legal regime that today governs activities in the region.

Glaciology, Geology, and Climate

The massive Antarctic ice sheet, an average of 2,000 meters thick, covers 98 percent of the continent. Only areas of the northern peninsula and the southern dry valleys are ice free. With a volume of about 30 billion cubic kilometers of water, the vast Antarctic polar ice cap contains 75 percent of the world’s freshwater and 90 percent of its ice. The ice sheet is pliable and flows out like a huge glacier from a high ice-domed central plateau. This enormous ice sheet conceals the geology of the continent, which is divided into two unequal portions. The larger portion, eastern Antarctica, consists of one huge rock mass, whereas the smaller portion, western Antarctica, resembles an archipelago of mountainous islands fused together by ice. Several metallic minerals, such as chromium, copper, tin, gold, lead, zinc, and uranium, are found in the Transantarctic Mountains in the peninsula region, albeit in trace amounts. Larger deposits of iron and coal are present but not in commercially recoverable quantities. No petroleum or natural gas has been discovered on Antarctica or in its circumpolar continental shelf.

Antarctica’s extreme climate makes the continent a vast crystal desert. The lowest temperature ever recorded, -58.3?C, was measured at Russia’s Vostok Station in July 1983, although summer temperatures can climb to 15?C on the Antarctic Peninsula. Cold, dense air blowing down from the interior polar plateau generates turbulent winds up to 160 kilometers per hour and can create blizzard-like conditions. Still, little precipitation falls in Antarctica, an average of less than 50 millimeters each year. This produces an intriguing natural paradox: Antarctica’s polar ice accounts for three-fourths of the world’s freshwater resources, yet, the continent receives less precipitation than the Sahara Desert, making it the driest place on the planet.

Life Forms

The harsh climate in Antarctica produces a distinctive terrestrial ecosystem. There are eight hundred species of land vegetation, most of which are lichens. Mosses, molds, liverworts, yeasts, fungi, bacteria, and algae are also found. No herbs, shrubs, grasses, or trees exist on the continent. Animal life on Antarctica is even more scanty and primitive. No vertebrates are indigenous to the continent—there are no mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. Most animals are protozoans and arthropods, such as mites and fleas.

In southern polar seas, however, a remarkably rich biosystem thrives. Most significant among Antarctic marine life is krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean. Krill serves as the basic food for fish, whales, seals, and seabirds in the Antarctic. Among fish in southern circumpolar seas, Antarctic cod and the Pantagonian toothfish are most heavily exploited. Weddell, crabeater, leopard, and elephant seals inhabit Antarctic waters, as do porpoises, dolphins, whales, and squid. Land areas in Antarctica support huge numbers of seabirds, including albatrosses, petrels, skuas, cormorants, and terns. Most numerous are emperor and Adelie penguins, which account for 65 percent of the 200 million birds in the region.

Population and Government

No indigenous people inhabit Antarctica. Humans who live there are scientists and support personnel, and at the height of the scientific season they number fewer than five thousand. As many as fourteen thousand ship-borne tourists now visit the continent annually, however. Antarctica’s unique and largely pristine environment means that it can be used as a scientific laboratory platform for measuring and monitoring global processes, especially world climate change, ozone depletion, atmospheric current flow, and ocean current circulation. Science remains the principal endeavor on the continent. Such scientific research is administered by national programs and coordinated internationally through a special governance system.

The core legal agreement is the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by the twelve IGY nations. In 2009 forty-seven states are member parties. This treaty makes the continent a demilitarized zone preserved for scientific research. Although the treaty neither denies nor accepts the national claims to sovereignty in Antarctica, it does prohibit the establishment of military bases, conduct of military maneuvers, testing of any weapons (including nuclear weapons), or disposal of radioactive wastes in the area. The treaty strongly encourages freedom of scientific investigation and the exchange of scientific personnel between contracting parties.

Environmental concerns have driven the development of new international legal rules since the Antarctic Treaty went into force in 1961. A special measure was adopted in 1964 to foster conservation of plants and animal life on the continent. There followed in 1972 a convention to conserve and protect Antarctic seals, and in 1980 came a special agreement for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, specifically to control commercial harvests of krill and finfish in circumpolar seas. A treaty to regulate development of Antarctic mineral resources was negotiated during the 1980s but disintegrated in 1989, mainly because of political opposition from environmental groups. During the late 1980s and early 1990s anxiety arose among environmentalists over increasing pollution on the frozen continent. Although the threats of mineral development and increasing tourism to the Antarctic were aggravating, the real concern was the increasing amounts of garbage, sewage, and chemical wastes generated by scientists and support personnel in forty scientific stations. These wastes were not being disposed of by being returned to their original continents. Rather, they were being buried in landfills, stored in metal barrels, incinerated in the open air, or dumped into circumpolar waters. To foreclose the possibility of mineral development, but also to address these pollution concerns, a special environmental protection protocol to the Antarctic Treaty was agreed to in 1991. That protocol provides for comprehensive regulation over activities affecting the Antarctic environment; it became binding on Antarctic Treaty governments in 1998, establishing principles for conducting human activities in the Antarctic and integrating various recommendations, codes of conduct, and guidelines into a coherent, obligatory legal whole. Significantly, the protocol bans mineral development, which includes drilling for oil and natural gas, onshore or offshore. Five annexes accompany the protocol. These set procedures for environmental-impact assessment, restate the need to conserve Antarctic fauna and flora, set standards for waste disposal and waste management, fix rules to prevent pollution from ships in Antarctic waters, and expand the Antarctic protected area system. Although this protocol and its annexes contribute much to environmental protection and resource conservation in the polar south, the treaty system will continue to evolve to deal with new Antarctic environmental concerns, such as increasing tourism, land-based pollution, and global warming.


  1. Berkman, P. A. (2001). Science into policy: Global lessons from Antarctica. New York: Academic Press.
  2. Heacox, K. (1998). Antarctica: The last continent. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.
  3. Joyner, C. C. (1998). Governing the frozen commons: The Antarctic regime and environmental protection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  4. Riffenburgh, B. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of the Antarctic (2 vols). London: Routledge.

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