How far can one go from the Earth without actually leaving the planet? The answer lies in a really vast place that, for the most part, has never been walked on by a human: Antarctica.
Very little society has evolved on the ice continent. Several thousand people live there, spread across a few dozen scientific bases and stations, most of which operate only during the summer. They come from other continents for short periods, researching or looking after the researchers, fully supported by resources flown or shipped in from other continents.
In a sentence: Antarctica is the most extreme place on the planet. And by being so alien to our human experience, so unfiltered by civilization, it brings forward fundamental questions.
Questions such as: What are we doing to the planet that gives us life, and how will we protect it? Or: How are we going to live together in the future in a way that’s peaceful and just?
There is nothing in Antarctica to consistently support human life. There are near-infinite frozen plateaus, dry valleys with an almost Martian geology and appearance, inaccessible ice-mountain ranges, subglacial lakes. There are grasses and wildflowers at the edges, and lichens and some small plants, but there isn’t a single tree on the continent. The only food one can find is in the waters around it: the fish that feed on plankton and krill. On most of Antarctica, there isn’t even drinkable water really, despite the boundless mass of ice, because to melt it (or to cook that fish), one needs wood or fuel brought from another continent.
I brought those two questions with me when I travelled there with a group brought together by Insider Expeditions and led by British polar explorer Ben Saunders. It was the beginning of the Antarctic summer (December), and we were on the maiden voyage of a ship of radically sustainable design, the Ocean Victory. At moments, first on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia and then on the Antarctic Peninsula, I had the impression of seeing slices of the European Alps that had been dumped straight into the ocean. But at other moments, we were out of this world, visiting colonies of hundreds of thousands of penguins, walking among the seals sleeping on the shores that aren’t covered with ice, cruising on Zodiac boats among huge icebergs, observing the whales circle the ship.
The most prominent feature of Antarctica is, of course, the ice. About 98 percent of its landmass is permanently covered with ice. When we arrived, after braving 30-foot-high waves, the excitement gave way to bewilderment at the impossible-to-grasp scale. Even numbers don’t help, but here they are: There are 7.2 million cubic miles of it, according to the British Antarctic Survey. That computes to more than 5 million cubic yards per person on Earth.
That ice is a lens through which we can confront the first question, about the planet, its climate and us.
There is a huge spectrum of science that’s done in Antarctica. Some of it involves studying ice cores. In the middle of the continent, the ice is over 1.9 miles thick. It is the result of millennia of snow falling on snow. In doing so, it shuts in small bubbles of air. As snow consolidates into ice, those small bubbles remain trapped in it. Scientists have drilled all the way down almost to the bottom, where the ice is some 800,000 years old — more than twice as old as the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. That means that studying those ice cores offers the “purest” view we can get of the quality of the air on the planet across history.
Those air bubbles contain compounds such as carbon dioxide. By measuring it, scientists have discovered that concentrations of carbon dioxide have never been so high as they are today and that those concentrations track temperatures. When there is more carbon dioxide in the air, temperatures are higher; when there is less, they’re lower. All the way back, for hundreds of thousands of years. The ice cores of Antarctica have closed the debate on whether carbon dioxide has a direct impact on temperatures on Earth. It does.
That’s the science that studies the deep past. And then there is the science that studies current phenomena and explores our potential future: the science about melting glaciers and sea level rises.
Ice has a peculiar property: It floats in its own liquid and displaces its own weight in water. That means that when floating ice melts, it produces the same amount of water it was already displacing, and the water level stays nearly the same. So icebergs can melt without significantly raising sea levels — because they are all already floating. The focus of concern is the ice that newly flows from land into the sea. Because of warming, shelves around the continent are starting to break up. We’ve seen that happen — the cracked fronts of the shelves suddenly crashing down with a small thunder into the water. Were the ice shelves to go completely, the glaciers behind them could slide more quickly into the ocean.
You may have read about the Thwaites — which has also been called in recent headlines the “Doomsday glacier.” It’s a massive land glacier with a small floating ice shelf propping it up, and it’s one of the parts of Antarctica most at risk. The ice shelf is melting from below because of warmer water. It’s breaking apart in many places, and if it goes, there won’t be anything to keep back the gigantic land glacier behind it.
Remember that figure we mentioned earlier: Antarctica is covered with 7.2 million cubic miles of ice. The Thwaites is big but it’s a tiny, tiny part of Antarctica — It’s the size of Florida on a continent one and a half the size of the continental United States. If the Thwaites collapses and melts into the ocean, scientists reckon that it could raise seas around the globe by about two feet. Researchers are also looking at other ice shelves that were considered stable and are showing increased fragility. Antarctica is shouting North (and from there, all directions are North) a message of urgency: Things are getting significantly hotter and faster.
The second question is less about science and more about politics, society and culture. It’s about how we function and work together in the future, as one planet and despite our differences.
Antarctica is not owned by any country. No one asks you for your passport when you land. There are dozens of science bases and stations. Neighboring countries such as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile have theirs. Maritime powers current and past such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, Russia, Italy, Spain and France have theirs. India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and China are there too. Generally speaking, there is a high level of collaboration among them, and although the U.S. National Science Foundation maintains the year-round unofficial “capital of Antarctica” — McMurdo Station — the Americans don’t have more say about what happens on the continent than anyone else.
That’s because Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959. It was completed by a few related agreements that were established later; together, they create the Antarctic Treaty System, which basically says that the continent is a nature reserve, the property of all of humanity and can only be used for scientific and peaceful purposes. Part of it could be up for review in 2048.
A most interesting fact about the Antarctic Treaty is the date it was signed, which strongly and unsettlingly resonates with our current times: 1959 was a moment of high international tensions, especially around the nuclear threat. Just for context, two years later, construction started for the Berlin Wall and after one more year, the United States and the Soviet Union had deployed missiles at each other’s doors, in Cuba and in Italy and Turkey.
Yet, at maybe the coldest moment of the Cold War, the world managed to come together and agree that this big space should not be touched unless it was for peaceful science. Twelve countries originally signed the agreement, including the United States and the Soviet Union. Everyone else has respected it, and over time, a few dozen other countries joined it.
One of the reasons the treaty was established was to avoid Antarctica becoming another faraway testing ground for nuclear bombs, like several Pacific atolls. It also explicitly bans mining and commercial exploitation. I am not sure that we could achieve such a forward-looking agreement today, despite the international organizations and the world having become way more interconnected and interdependent — and despite all we now know about climate risk.
Those science stations are also latent geopolitical outposts, built to establish a presence, infrastructure, local knowledge and leverage for the future. And of course, back in 1959, there was much less knowledge of the potential deposits of fossil fuels and minerals hidden under the ices and waters of Antarctica. But for now, and since 1959, it’s been all science and, one should add, good and important science, ranging from astronomy to biology, often of the kind that can’t be done elsewhere. Military presence is limited to some support ships or transport aircrafts carrying equipment and personnel, while commercial presence is nil aside from roughly 60,000 tourists — me one of them — traveling there every year, under strict rules.
The way Antarctica is governed within a collaborative framework, the way it is a space that’s not part of the national boundaries of any country and where nationality matters less and what matters more is your ability to get on with your fellow human beings, presents a challenge (both philosophically and practically) to our current practice of global governance, which has become very transactional and confrontational.
Arriving in Antarctica, one cannot avoid a feeling of the origin of the world. The glaciers, the mighty physical scale, the unspoiled beauty, the light, the winds, the clean, crisp air, the shrieking of hundreds of thousands of penguins, the tail flukes of a whale disappearing in the water, the elephant seals’ prehistoric look.
But Antarctica is also a continent-scale reminder of the immense responsibility we carry. If the glaciers of Antarctica melt, we can’t refreeze them artificially. Our choices in the coming couple decades will decide the lives of countless generations to come.
In diplomatic time scales, 2048 isn’t that far away. Will we have the wisdom and the capacity to stick together, like the governments of 1959 did despite the tensions, and continue to protect this unique place? Or will we let Antarctica become another setting of man’s ingenuity for blowing through boundaries, grabbing and exploiting? The ongoing protection of the Antarctic Treaty is going to be a huge test of our capacity to recognize a higher level of collective interest — and to deliver on that recognition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Antarctic Treaty is set to expire in 2048. Instead, in 2048, a review of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty may be requested by any country that ratified the Protocol.