The Antarctic Circle was first crossed by Captain James Cook about 1773. Public fancy has long surrounded both North and South Poles with such a glamour that support for polar research was sought to reach a pole by some method or other in terms of spectacular and heroic effort …the lure of knowledge that is baited by suffering and death…, as expressed by famous polar geologist Laurence M. Gould (1931).
In scientific eyes, Antarctica has long been viewed in terms of its geophysical and space physics ties to our sun and extraterrestrial space. Antarctica held the clues to the outer atmosphere, space magnetism, and solar and stellar effects upon the earth.
The First International Polar Year (1882-83) mainly concerned the Arctic. Progress in physics instrumentation and techniques around the time of World War I enabled the Second International Polar Year (1932-1933) to produce real results tying the Southern Polar Zone to the Sun and extraterrestrial magnetic fields and cosmic rays. The Second International Polar Year occurred during a Solar Minimum period. The great world scientific program, the International Geophysical Year (July 1957- Dec. 1958) and its successor the International Geophysical Cooperation Year (1959) were planned for a Solar Maximum period where Solar-Terrestrial phenomena (polar aurorae, geomagnetic events, Solar bursts and storms…) would be frequent and strong. This period also was announced to bring the introduction of earth-encompassing space satellite flights. The Soviets (1957) and the U. S. (1958) launched the first satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year Program.
But the Antarctic was still regarded by mankind as a strange, pure, almost other world, connected closely to our sun, moon and extraterrestrial space. Politics and science were intertwined in Antarctica. The 12-nation Antarctic Treaty was opened for signing in Dec. 1959 and became effective in June 1961. Presently, 48 nations are signatory participants, representing almost two-thirds of the world’s human population. This Antarctic Treaty was the first arms control agreement of the Cold War.
There is so much we don’t know about the Antarctic. We have changed our opinions as our knowledge has grown. Is the overall amount of ice increasing or decreasing in Antarctica? Can world ocean level rise be consistent with increasing ice in Antarctica? Exactly how is it that the inner Polar zones funnel a much wider spectrum of solar and cosmic energy particles into our atmosphere? Is there truly no better place in the world for stellar and cosmic ray observation than the high altitude, clear sky conditions in the Antarctic? Can we read backwards into the world’s environmental history through the deep ice corings from Lake Vostok (Vostok holds the world’s minimum temperature record of -129.6 degrees F)? Can this ice continent with the world’s most challenging weather continue as a beacon for international cooperation and peace?
Lucy + Jorge Orta urge that we consider the dangers to Antarctica as the symbol of international peace and freedom of research and invite us to see Antarctica as a symbol of freedom for the world’s peoples, going beyond the borders of nationality or culture.
C. Stewart Gillmor is a Professor of History and Science, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University.