Antarctica: Secure, yet no borders

Posted Jan. 15, 2009, at 10:05 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

“Cargo Meg, Cargo Meg, this is Lisa. Are you available to come to the station?”

I key my radio and reply. “What’s going on?”

“We need a Spanish translator. A Spanish-speaking skier has just arrived.”

Antarctica is an international continent. Though countries run individual bases, no nation can make a claim to Antarctic land. This was specified in the same Antarctic Treaty of 1952 that decreed that this “no-man’s land” should be used for strictly peaceful purposes and open, collaborative scientific research.

Today, there is a definite multinational presence in Antarctica. Ringing the ceremonial South Pole marker are the flags of all of the nations in the original treaty-signing; their multicolored fabrics flap in the wind, reminding us of this international identity.

Of course, there are occasional hitches with an entire unclaimed continent. Although all of the scientific information gathered here is open-book and meant to be shared, research is still competitive. One hundred years ago, Norway and Britain fought the great race for the South Pole, each fighting to get its flag there first. This spirit of national pride and competition is still alive in Antarctic exploration and research today.

Nonetheless, international cooperation is important in Antarctica — after all, when it comes down to it, we’re all we’ve got here, relying on one another for help in emergencies. When a fire swept the Russian base in October, the neighboring Chinese base came to its aid.

But it’s not just in times of crisis that nations help each other out. One great combined-resource and international partnership is the Norwegian-American traverse. This expedition is conducting field investigations along two overland routes in East Antarctica. Last season, the team traversed from Troll Station, the Norwegian base, to South Pole Station. This season, they are returning along a different route. Their work, sampling ice cores and studying climate change across East Antarctica, will change viewpoints worldwide, scientifically, politically and economically.

The Norwegian-American Traverse spent a few weeks at the Pole this year, and while working with them, I got to know their crew and mission. The expedition is made up of scientists and Antarctic veterans representing Norwegian and American institutions. Their route has not been an easy one. Now in the second season of their expedition, they were forced last year to halt and winterize because of repeated mechanical breakdowns.

“We went through seven differentials and two transfer boxes,” the team’s leader tells us, grinning wryly. “Why did we have to stop? Because there were no spare parts available on the continent.” Expedition members laugh as they show us what they have labeled the “map of pain” marking the many spots where they broke down. They show another picture: a pair of feet sticking out from under one of their tracked vehicles. “That is our mechanic … that is what he looked like most of the time last year,” one member says.

“We spent the off-season planning and redesigning, flew back to Camp Winter with new parts, dug up and rebuilt the machines, and now we’re on our way — back to the Norwegian base,” he said.

Tom Neumann, representing the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and this season’s traverse leader, summed it up with these words: “Really, neither nation could have pulled this off alone.”

Because global climate change research will have such widespread effects on international policy, it is particularly appropriate that this scientific mission is a multinational one.

The Norwegian-American traverse has four (newly rebuilt) tracked vehicles, each of which pulls two sleds of fuel, equipment, living and working quarters. Each vehicle is named after famous American and Norwegian sled dogs.

They are not the first to travel through East Antarctica, though the area is still largely unexplored. In 1967-1968, a Japanese research expedition led by Masami Murayama traveled in a similar area. Their experiences and data greatly helped the Norwegian-American traverse’s planning — adding another nation into the collaborative efforts of Antarctic exploration.

Today, a woman from Galicia, Spain, has successfully skied — solo and unsupported — to the South Pole. Hers is not a scientific mission, but an adventure, testing, as several have before her, the limits of the human spirit against this harsh climate. She is one of many international visitors who come to the South Pole.

I run inside, taking the stairs by twos, to meet her. She is easy to pick out, not being clad in the same U.S. government-issued gear we all wear here. I am excited to show her this United States station — and to hear about what she has learned about Antarctica on her trek across the plateau.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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