Fact-file: Antarctica

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A beautiful land wearing white garb with nothing but snow is the identity of picturesque Antarctica. If we look close enough we will find that the southernmost point of the Earth, despite being a cold desert, has a unique biodiversity. Also, the South Pole hides many resources underneath the ice sheets. This region is a muse for many explorers, scientists, geographers and environmentalists.

The 5th largest continent is an uninhabited piece of land that is administered by a treaty. On 23rd June this year, Antarctica treaty celebrated its 60th anniversary. In 1959 the momentous document was signed between 12 countries in Washington amid the Cold War. It is the sole treaty that defines the rule based international order for the continent. India became a member of this treaty in 1983 and currently, there are 54 parties. The 14 articles of the treaty include provision for promoting freedom of scientific research, the use of the continent only for peaceful purposes and the prohibition of military activities, nuclear test and the disposal of radioactive waste. Article IV of the treaty neutralizes territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. Hence, The treaty prohibits the claim or enlargement of an existing claim over the land. The uninhabited continent is a treasure trove of many minerals. Hence the bordering countries have been interested in exploring the region and economize the resources.

India has also shown a keen interest in scientific research and exploration in the region. National Center for Antarctic and ocean research (NCAOR) was established in 1998. In 1981 the first Indian expedition to Antarctica took place. Few research bases were stationed in the cold desert including Dakshin Gangotri, Maitri, Bharti and Sagar Nidhi.

Threats to Antarctica

Climate change has not left any corner of the globe untouched. An alarming increase of 3Β°C in air temperature was recorded in the Antarctic peninsula. The upper ocean temperatures rose over 1Β°C. All this impacted the wildlife adversely. Penguin colonies and their distribution is changing drastically. Usually in cold desert plants are not able to grow due to the harsh climate and extreme temperatures. However, the temperature rise has made the environment conducive for plant growth. Antarctic krill found in the Southern Ocean have reduced in number. Glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates and ice shelves are retreating. Antarctic Thwaites glacier popularly known as the doomsday glacier is melting and is contributing to global sea level rise. Thus the ripples of the Antarctic are not limited to the South Pole. They will have far and wide ranging effects on coastal cities, wildlife across borders and humans themselves.

Humans are at the centre of this large scale destruction of the Antarctic ecosystem. To undo few of the mistakes that brought doom at the doors of Antarctic, a few agreements were signed. They include the 1972 convention for the conservation of the Antarctic seals, the 1980 convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources and the 1991 protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic treaty.

Since it a global common, the onus of protecting the ecosystem and henceforth the interests of humans themselves lies on everybody, more so for the developed countries that became prosperous by unsustainable means. A strong commitment is required by all to reverse the follies of the past.