An American doctor was evacuated last week from an Antarctic research station after treating herself for breast cancer for five months. Who lives in Antarctica? What sort of research is done there? And who is in charge?
At 5.5 million square miles, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent (Australia and Europe are smaller), but its forbidding climate has kept the population from exceeding 4,000. With a mean annual temperature of 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and a surface that is 98 percent covered in ice, Antarctica has no indigenous inhabitants and very few native plants and animals. Fossil discoveries suggest that it was part of Gondwanaland, the single temperate continent, 200 million years ago.
Antarctica was unknown to humans until American sealer John Davis made landfall in 1821. For the next 100 years, a dozen countries shared the continent. Some--like Norway and Sweden--were interested in whaling and fur sealing. Others--like Britain and the U.S.--were primarily concerned with exploration and scientific research. First to reach the South Pole was Norway's Roald Amundsen in 1911. The continent was mapped in the late 1920s, setting off an international land rush.
In 1959, 12 nations including the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Antarctic Treaty. It guarantees cooperation and free movement among scientific operations, prohibits military activities, and suspends indefinitely all territorial claims. Under the treaty, Antarctica is governed through consultative meetings of the nations--now numbering 27--that maintain extensive Antarctic facilities. Most meetings focus on environmental protections: In 1991, the group banned oil and mineral exploration for the next 50 years. They have also restricted fishing and banned sealing altogether. American laws apply to U.S. nationals in Antarctica, except when they are in foreign-operated research stations.
Since adoption of the treaty, Antarctica has been inhabited exclusively by scientific researchers and support staff. Antarctica is uniquely suited for many types of research, including astronomy, atmospheric science, meteorology, oceanography, and geophysics. There are 80 research stations scattered across Antarctica, only 40 of which are active in the winter. McMurdo station, run by the U.S., is the largest, with 80 buildings and 1,000 summer residents. The settlements are isolated during the eight winter months, March through October, when brutal weather makes air travel all but impossible. As a result, few researchers stay in Antarctica for more than one or two years at a time.