I'm here to tell the story
from the peace of the buffalo
until the whipped sands
of the final earth, in the foams
accumulated of the Antarctic light.
Invited by the Congress of the Future that took place last January in Chile, a group of 30 scientists, among which the Director General of FAO, José Graziano and others, had the opportunity to travel on a military plane from Punta Arenas to King George Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula, where we were received by the Director of the Antarctic Institute of Chile and a group of researchers who carry out studies taking advantage of the summer season at the end of the world. When descending from the plane, the first impression was the wind that penetrated like ice knives and did not stop the whole day, producing a thermal sensation of -15 degrees C. We were told that this was nothing compared to the average temperature in the bases near the pole that in the coldest time, in the month of July, reaches -59 degrees C on average. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth - since temperatures are measured, the Russian base of Vostok holds the world record with -89.2 degrees C in 1983.
The Antarctic continent, with 14 million km2, is the sixth continent of the planet, being the fourth in size, since it is more extensive than Europe (10,530,751 km2) and Oceania (9,008,458 km2). Its population does not reach 1,000 inhabitants and increases to about 5,000 in the austral summer season, when scientists and researchers from all over the world arrive at the permanent and transitory bases, which open only during the summer months, to carry out their studies. Antarctica is the only place in the world where there are no countries, no borders, no armies, no police, and where French, Russians, English, Americans, Chinese, Argentinians, Chileans, Brazilians, Norwegians, New Zealanders and other nationalities coexist in harmony, united in scientific research and protected by the Antarctic Treaty that regulates human activities and that came into force in 1961.
The Treaty ensures the use of the white continent for exclusively peaceful purposes, prohibiting military activities, weapons, fortifications, nuclear tests, radioactive waste and military exercises. It also contemplates mechanisms for inspection and verification of the Treaty at any time by all parties that maintain bases. It also ensures the freedom of research and scientific cooperation together with the protection and conservation of living resources.
Oil, gold, uranium, iron and other minerals lie under the ice, which is 1.9 kilometers thick, but their extraction was banned by the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty in an Additional Protocol on environmental protection, signed in Madrid in 1991. Article 7 states: "Any activity related to mineral resources, except scientific research, will be prohibited."
A period of 50 years was established, so in 2041 the Treaty will be due for revision. "The United States achieved that, once this period has elapsed, this agreement can be revised by majority and not by consensus, as had been requested by environmentalists and countries wanting to turn the last virgin continent into a nature reserve, where the machinery to extract its riches could never enter.” Antarctica, with its 92% covered by ice, also holds 70% of the planet's freshwater reserves, but the climate change we observe has accelerated the melting and retreat of glacial mass both by more warm winds and/or underwater currents that have increased in temperature. Conservationists fear, with good reason, the voracity of large companies that already possess technology to undertake the first steps in search of Antarctic riches. Hence the importance of preserving and enforcing the current Treaty, since Antarctica is one of the main sources for studying climate change.
The Director of British Antarctic Survey, Jane Francis, in the panel about this continent held during the Congress of the Future on January 16 in Santiago, pointed out that in the ice samples that have been extracted from the depths, scientists have found air bubbles encapsulated 800,000 years ago, and which constitute the only record of how things used to be and how much the climate in the region has changed. In this regard, she expressed that "the results are not encouraging: the concentration of CO2 had never before increased over 300 ppm (in parts per million), but now it is at 409 ppm" .
On December 27, 2018 a US expedition of more than 50 people and with a budget of over 5 million dollars, drilled 1,068 meters to extract 60 liters of isolated water and sediments of 100 thousand years from the subglacial lake Mercer, where they found 10,000 microbes for every millimeter of water in a place where there is no light. This lake, located 600 km from the South Pole, is the second largest after Vostok, drilled by the Russians in 2012 and located at 3,400 meters deep. Although these investigations are fundamental for science to measure the effects of climate change, this very same technology might also serve tomorrow to extract riches in the race between the two great powers to reach them.
For the hundred scientists gathered at the Congress of the Future in Santiago, climate change is the greatest danger for the planet. At least this is what the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016, Michael Kosterlitz, said: "The worst threat we have is a massive climate change, and if we do not reverse it, it will be too late." About the future, he added that "no one knows what will happen, it is unpredictable. Humans have been stupid in changing the ecosystem in which we live. Later, another ice age could begin, who knows?". The French philosopher Susan George thinks that “this has not been taken seriously enough, and I hope technology will help us get out of this situation, but I will not count on that."
It seems unlikely, or rather naive, to expect a fundamental change in the system of world economic production in the short term that will decisively curb polluting emissions or the abandonment of oil and coal. Humanity and the political class of the great powers know that we are accelerating towards a disaster that may be irreversible, but little is done to stop it due to the suicidal logic of economic growth, competition and profit. Worse, the President of the main power of the planet doubts, against all the evidence, that we are experiencing a climate change. Antarctica and the Treaty that governs it have demonstrated that human beings can reach agreements of peaceful coexistence and practice it in a territory without borders or weapons, where scientific cooperation and human solidarity has been demonstrated on multiple occasions over these almost 60 years.
It is a triumph of multilateralism about which little is said. Although it may seem utopian, this model could be gradually extended to other areas of the planet creating zones of disarmament, if the States were seriously committed to it before a nuclear war or climate change makes us disappear. The longer it takes us to understand that the only way to face global problems is jointly, as a human community, and that no single power can give an answer if it is not within the framework of the multilateral system, the greater is the danger we run. Apparently, the only viable way is to strengthen the international system, where respect for treaties and agreements may be the last chance to save the planet and ourselves.