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10 things you should know about Antarctica

Posted By Ellen Ratner On 03/11/2012 @ 7:28 pm In Commentary | No Comments

I am just leaving the continent of Antarctica, where I have been for more than a week. It is an amazing place and holds a legacy for our children and grandchildren. We can’t afford to lose this amazing wilderness.

I came here with explorer Robert Swan and – with the help of the “Antarctica Log Book” by Marta Velazquez and Cecilia Aranda – here are some facts that every human should know. We do not really think much about the frozen continent at the bottom of the earth, but it is a great resource for all of us on the planet. Below is what I learned during my week in Antarctica:

1) Ninety percent of the world’s ice is held on the continent of Antarctica. Seventy percent of the world’s fresh water is held in that ice. If we make Antarctica a commercial enterprise, we risk drawing down that “money in the bank” that we all have for our most precious resource: water.

2) The Antarctic Treaty, the one that prevents mineral/oil exploration, went into effect in 1991 and lasts into 2041. It makes sure that no one can build hotels or mine minerals or look for petroleum. If the treaty doesn’t get extended, various countries will fight for their claims. Like the war in the Falkland Islands, it will not go well for someone.

3) There is a very fragile eco-system. When the whales were over-fished, it had a cascading effect. Basically, whale poop feeds the plankton, much like fertilizer helps plants. The krill eat the plankton, the penguins eat the krill, the seals eat the penguins, the whales eat the seals and the circle of life is complete. Take one thing, such as whales, out of the equation and the circle of life goes out of balance.

4) Antarctica is full of new discoveries. The Russians found a huge lake under one of the ice shelves. There is also a mountain range the size of the Alps under one of the glaciers. Unlike the North Pole, which is total ice and no land, Antarctica is a real continent about the size of Australia.

5) The Western Antarctic Peninsula has warmed 2.8 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years. That warming led to the loss of the Larson Ice shelf. The frozen fresh water will never come back again.

6) Antarctica has no permanent residents. It is the one place in the world that is owned by no one and is owned by everyone. During the summer months (now), the population based in research stations is about 4,000. It goes way down to 1,000 in the winter months. Before 1900s,
no one even lived in Antarctica on a temporary basis. The first research base began in 1904. Tourist ships did not come to Antarctica until the 1960s.

7) The magnitude of the ice is overwhelming. Lambert Glacier is 60 miles wide and 250 miles long. However, a break in the ice (an iceberg) was 183 miles long and 23 miles wide. Breaks such as this can force sea levels to rise, causing flooding as well as a loss in the “fresh water” bank.

9) There are really no land animals (penguins and seals are not land animals) on Antarctica. The largest “land animal” is an insect. It is the wingless midge, less the half of an inch.

10) Robert Swan was the first human to walk both poles. He did this by age 33. At that time, there was a large hole in the ozone layer, and he was not prepared for it. His eyes changed color due to the exposure to that open ozone layer. He was so overwhelmed by what he saw with climate change and the need to preserve the continent that he began the group 2041.com to make sure that the treaty gets extended.

Antarctica is important to everyone. Let’s keep it so it belongs to everyone and no one. It is a moral imperative for our survival.


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