For a continent so far on the fringes of workaday human life, Antarctica is in the thick of plenty of crucial human developments. It is a central location for research into predictions about, and the effects of, climate change, and it is tops for high-caliber study in most fields of science. It is also one of the world's last largely untouched natural spaces, and so the challenge always remains: how best to protect it?
Antarctica & Climate Change
With global climate change melting its vast ice sheets, Antarctica – despite its remoteness – sits at the forefront of climate change research. News of the changes in the ice and ecosystems hits international media regularly.
In October 2011 NASA scientists discovered a rift in the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica that ultimately yielded 700-sq-km iceberg B-31, which is about the size of Singapore. Multiple rifts in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf were discovered from mid-2016 to early July 2017, before an A-68 iceberg the size of Delaware calved from shelf in mid-July 2017; the 5800-sq-km berg is 200m thick and weighs more than a trillion tons. When ice shelves break free, they cease to be buffers to inland ice, which then accelerates toward the ocean. Such events interlock with other complex systems (such as ice formation and ocean salinity and acidity), and there is a major push to better monitor and analyze these changes.
On the Ice, new eco-friendly science bases are being inaugurated, such as Belgium's zero-emission Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Station (opened in 2009) and Korea's Jang Bogo (2014), and facilities such as wind turbines are being added to existing stations (such as McMurdo and Scott Base) to offset power needs and carbon footprints.
Antarctic science generates some of the world's most cutting-edge research in a multitude of disciplines. The continent is uniquely placed for research in astronomy and physics. The IceCube neutrino detector, buried one cubic km below the Pole, is making observations that refute long-held understandings of gamma-ray bursts.
New technologies and international cooperation are allowing previously inaccessible areas of Antarctica to be studied: sensors attached to animals gather data from deep below the sea and beam it to satellites; the Polar Earth Observing Network (www.polenet.org) seismic array has sensors over one third of Antarctica; subglacial Lake Vostok has been tapped, and studies of its unusual properties are ongoing; the Southern Ocean Observing System monitors and studies Southern Ocean systems (atmosphere, land, ice, ocean and ecosystems) and their impacts on the rest of the world; and NASA's Operation IceBridge collects data on changing land and sea ice, and will augment the 2018 Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2) program. And the most exciting thing? These programs are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Antarctic Treaty & Political Governance
In 2015 Iceland, Mongolia and Kazakhstan acceded to the Antarctic Treaty governing Antarctica, bringing the total to 53 nations. Treaty countries agree that Antarctica is a peaceful, free and demilitarized place of international cooperation and scientific research, open to all, with a minimum of human impact.
Though no country holds indisputable title over any part of Antarctica, seven nations have territorial claims. The claims are not internationally recognized, but nations attempt to strengthen them. From 2007 to 2009, for example, the UK, Chile and Argentina all filed for rights to Antarctica's ocean floor.
Occasionally disputes arise over resources and wildlife management, with whaling and fishing contentious issues. In October 2016, though, after much negotiation, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) created the world's largest marine reserve, protecting 1,548,800 sq km in the Ross Sea area.