Can Antarctica remain a refuge for science and peace?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the last in our series
about Antarctica. We are excited to announce that we’re also
launching a new podcast based on this reporting trip. We hope you will listen, and more on how to
hear it later. But first: For most of human history, the
icy continent at the bottom of the world was an unknown, unvisited place. Humans discovered Antarctica only about 200
years ago. But, as William Brangham and producers Mike
Fritz and Emily Carpeaux report, how the continent is governed today has fostered a unique diplomatic
and scientific cooperation among many different nations. It’s part of our weekly series on the Leading
Edge of science. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There’s no place further
south on Earth than Antarctica, a virtually uninhabited continent, covered almost entirely
by ice. There’s no indigenous human population, no
official government, not even a single paved road. ALEXANDRA ISERN, National Science Foundation:
It was the last place to explore. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Alexandra Isern is the head
of Antarctic sciences for the National Science Foundation, which also supports some “NewsHour”
reporting. She points out that, for thousands of years,
humans never even set foot on the continent. But how we found this place and how it’s governed
today is far different than anywhere else on Earth. ALEXANDRA ISERN: It’s an excellent example
of cooperation. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The first humans to actually
come to Antarctica were likely hunters chasing whales and seals in the early 1800s, hoping
to kill them for their pelts or boil them down for their oil. ALEXANDRA ISERN: So, there was a real economy
built around whaling. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Once those mammals were
discovered here, it set off something of an Antarctic gold rush. ALEXANDRA ISERN: You still see remnants today
around some of the stations where — particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula, where the whalers
would have had a kill, and they would render the oil on shore. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Relics of this once booming
industry are scattered across the continent. This was a former British and Norwegian whaling
station. Those huge tanks? They were once full of whale oil. But once the whale and seal populations were
decimated, the hunters went home. ALEXANDRA ISERN: It wasn’t that there was
any environmental reason. They left because they had fished everything
out. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Up until this point, whole
sections of Antarctica remained a mystery. Explorers had largely stayed away for reasons
that went beyond just the harsh conditions, according to historian and author Stephen
Pyne. STEPHEN PYNE, Historian: Nobody’s going to
get wealthy in Antarctica. There are no cities to sack, there are no
peoples to convert. There’s nothing there. The further you go into the interior, the
more and more there is only one thing, and that is ice. It’s probably as close on Earth that you can
come to being on another planet. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, by the early 1900s,
several nations rushed to explore the continent’s untouched interior. This kicked off what is known as the Heroic
Age of Antarctic exploration. STEPHEN PYNE: This was how you showed that
you were a scientific presence. This was a matter of prestige and status. It showed that you had arrived. ALEXANDRA ISERN: They were hearty souls. We still have the historic huts that they
used. And their clothes and everything are still
there. It’s a miracle they made it through any winter
with what they were wearing. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But some early explorers
didn’t make it out, like Britain’s Robert Falcon Scott, whose entire party trying to
return from a race to the South Pole froze and starved to death in 1912. STEPHEN PYNE: Antarctica proved exceptionally
tricky, because all of the things that centuries of exploration by the West had relied on,
having native peoples as guides, being able to follow rivers, being able to identify mountains,
all of the sorts of markers of exploration and the indices that you had succeeded disappeared. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But perhaps the most famous
stories about Antarctica are not stories of discovery. They are stories about incredible feats of
survival. In 1914, British explorer Ernest Shackleton
and his crew set off to cross the entire continent in a ship called the Endurance. But disaster struck before they even reached
the continent. The Endurance was trapped by the sea ice that
encircles Antarctica. KATIE MURRAY, Polar Historian: It’s one of
these stories where you think the worst has happened, that nothing else can go wrong,
and then it does. This is when the rest of the world really
gets to know about Antarctica. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Katie Murray is a polar
historian and expert on Shackleton’s Endurance voyage. In tourist season, she works for the company
One Ocean Expeditions. We talked in the ship’s movie theater. She told us how Shackleton became a legend,
not so much for his exploration, but simply by keeping his men alive after the Endurance
was crushed to pieces. Stranded on the ice, they ran out of food
and were eventually forced to eat their dogs. Later, they used small boats to navigate two
death-defying ocean crossings, before finally landing at a remote whaling station on South
Georgia Island. KATIE MURRAY: The Shackleton Endurance story
is ultimately a feel-good story because everybody survives, absolutely against the odds. When the worst happens, and your ship goes
down, no help is coming for you, you need to rescue yourself, effectively, and you manage
to do so, that’s absolutely incredible. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over the next several decades,
dozens of countries came to Antarctica and tried to plant their nations’ flags on different
parts of the continent. To help establish those territorial claims,
countries built scientific bases like these all over the continent. And, according to Tucker Scully, who for years
was chief negotiator on polar issues for the U.S. government, there was genuine science
to be done. TUCKER SCULLY, Former Polar Diplomat: It was
a place that was obviously the least studied part of the planet, particularly in things
like the Earth’s magnetic field, upper atmospheric physics, plate tectonics. A lot of the scientific community wanted to
get into Antarctica to do that kind of work. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While science was driving
a new age of exploration, by the late 1950s, there were growing concerns that the ice-covered
continent would one day be exploited or colonized by the world’s powers. So, in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold
War, 12 nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, hammered out a dramatic breakthrough,
the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty says that Antarctica has to remain
exclusively peaceful. That means no military exercises, no nuclear
testing, no nuclear dumping. It also says that scientists can come here
and conduct research wherever they want, regardless of other countries’ claims, and that the findings
of their work have to be shared publicly. TUCKER SCULLY: The Antarctic Treaty found
two issues that were really resonating internationally at the time, one of which was cooperation
in science. And, secondly, even between two extreme adversaries,
like the Soviet Union and the United States, you could, in fact, create areas that were
off-limits to military activities. And it worked, and continues to work. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Evan Bloom is currently
America’s top diplomat for the Arctic and Antarctic. He says the sheer difficulty of doing anything
in Antarctica still helps strengthen international cooperation. EVAN BLOOM, Director of Ocean and Polar Affairs,
State Department: In these remote places, you have to support each other, and share
logistics and food and all sorts of other things to make it all work out. So there was a strong push on the scientific
side that was helping the diplomats at the time figure out that, well, maybe we can preserve
this area for peace and science. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Today, however, there are
new challenges on the horizon. Manmade climate change is already altering
this pristine landscape, and potentially harming some of the continent’s iconic species. There’s also growing pressure for more tourism
and more large-scale commercial fishing. And with the vast majority of the world’s
freshwater frozen in Antarctica, some hotter, drier nations have begun eying all that ice. In fact, a business in the United Arab Emirates
recently announced plans to try to tow a massive iceberg containing billions of gallons of
freshwater over 7,000 miles to the Persian Gulf. And, finally, while some of the Antarctic
Treaty’s environmental protections expire in 2048 and will have to be renewed. CLAIRE CHRISTIAN, Executive Director, Antarctic
and Southern Ocean Coalition: The best thing that we can do for humanity in terms of Antarctica
is keep it like it is. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Claire Christian is the
executive director of the advocacy group known as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. CLAIRE CHRISTIAN: A lot of countries are justifiably
proud of what they have achieved in Antarctica, in terms of preserving it as a place for peace
and science. And I think that that is something that they
don’t want to go back on. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the biggest questions
marks facing this remarkable continent is, will that commitment hold? For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham
in Antarctica. JUDY WOODRUFF: What a remarkable series. Thank you to William and your team. Our new podcast on Antarctica is called “The
Last Continent,” and it gives a much deeper look at our team’s journey. We hope you will listen. You can search for “The Last Continent” or
“PBS NewsHour” on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app to subscribe and download episodes. You can write us or write a review, or listen
directly on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/thelastcontinent.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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