I'm Bob Doughty.
I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we travel south to
one of the coldest, windiest and least populated places in the world,
Antarctica. The word "Antarctica" comes from a Greek root meaning "opposite to
huge continent on the Earth's South Pole covers about fourteen million square
kilometers. About ninety-eight percent of this area is covered in ice. Join us
as we explore the history of Antarctica and its environmental and scientific
year, scientists from over twenty-seven countries carry out research in a place
that is like no other in the world. Scientists from many areas of study come to
Antarctica. They include biologists, astronomers, physicists and geologists.
There are always exciting discoveries being made in this huge natural
example, scientists recently discovered a group of small organisms that appear
to have lived for millions of years under the ice. The water under the ice is
very salty and contains many kinds of minerals including iron. The bacteria use
these minerals to survive. Jill Mikucki led the team of scientists who explored an area under an ice
formation called Taylor Glacier.
JILL MIKUCKI: "We have a lot to learn from the microbes
that survive in these kinds of environments and have adapted to these cold,
low-energy systems. They're very efficient."
far from Taylor Glacier, researchers for the American space Agency are using
the icy Lake Bonney to test an underwater robot vehicle. The vehicle is helping
scientists to see for the first time huge areas underneath the lake that were
otherwise impossible to explore. Developing this kind of vehicle could be
useful for future space operations. Scientists hope this vehicle could permit
them to one day explore the icy oceans on Jupiter's moon Europa.
One of the most important subjects studied on
Antarctica is climate change. Scientists say the thinning ozone layer over the
South Pole makes climate change take place more quickly than in other areas of
Frenot is deputy director of the French Polar Institute. He says that
in the Antarctic Peninsula, scientists estimate that climate change has caused
temperatures to increase by two or three degrees Celsius over the past fifty
years. He says this is a very huge increase compared to what has happened in
Signs of climate change include an increase in rain
when there used to be only snow, new plant life, and melting ice sheets. The
melting ice resulting from climate change would affect coastal areas around the
world. But scientists disagree about how much sea levels could rise if
Antarctica's ice sheets continue to melt.
group of researchers published its findings in Science magazine last month.
Jonathan Bamber of the Bristol Glaciology Center in England led the study. The team predicted sea levels would rise by
about three meters. This is three meters less than other studies have
estimated. Most scientists agree that climate change is a serious problem that
requires the attention of people and governments around the world.
There is no official agreement about who discovered
Antarctica. Since ancient times, thinkers including the Greek astronomer
Ptolemy believed in the existence of a huge continent on the South Pole. They
gave a name to this mysterious continent: Terra Australis Incognita, or the "Unknown Southern Land."
explorer James Cook came looking for this undiscovered continent in the
seventeen seventies. But he was looking for a much larger continent. On his
third trip, he and his team circled Antarctica. His boat crossed the Antarctic
Circle in three places, but he still failed to sight land. At the time, this
was the furthest south anyone had ever traveled.
Around eighteen twenty, crew members on three different
ships claimed to have sighted Antarctica. These were the American sailor
Nathaniel Palmer, the Russian Captain Fabian Bellingshausen and the British
Captain Edward Bransfield. The race by countries to explore Antarctica had
Looking at a
modern day map of Antarctica gives clues about its first explorers. In eighteen
thirty-nine the American Naval officer Charles Wilkes led an expedition to the
continent. He mapped over two thousand kilometers of the continent's coastline.
His efforts helped prove that Antarctica was in fact a continent. The Wilkes
Land area is named for him.
In eighteen forty-one, the British navy officer James
Ross discovered areas now called the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf. Other famous
twentieth century explorers of Antarctica included Ernest Shackleton, Roald
Amundsen, and Richard Evelyn Byrd.
It might seem
surprising that a freezing continent with no native human population would be
defined by a legal agreement signed by over forty countries. Antarctica is governed
by a collection of agreements known as the Antarctic Treaty System.
main agreement of the system, the Antarctic Treaty, was signed by twelve countries
in nineteen fifty-nine. It went into effect two years later.
Seven of the twelve
countries claim Antarctic territory, although the United States does not
recognize the claims. These seven are Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New
Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. The other five countries that signed
the treaty were Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the United
goal of the Antarctic Treaty is to support scientific research and the exchange
of information. The treaty also guarantees that Antarctica will continue to be
used for peaceful purposes and will not become the object of international
dispute. The treaty bans nuclear explosions, nuclear waste, and any military
activity such as weapons testing. The treaty also does not recognize, dispute
or establish claims of territorial ownership by a country.
nineteen fifty-nine, thirty-five other countries have joined the treaty. Some
countries are voting members, while others are non-voting members.
Antarctica for science makes sense. Researchers have found that working
together in the severe environment saves them time and money. Antoine Guichard agrees. He is part of the National Antarctic Programs.
ANTOINCE GUICHARD: "It is so expensive that if you
don't help each other, usually you just don't manage. And now with Antarctic
science being really a global science and part of understanding how the world
works, it is becoming really vital that everybody works together."
treaty also calls for countries to gather for Antarctic Treaty Consultative
Meetings. The meetings used to be held about once every two years. Now, the
group meets yearly. In April, the group met in Baltimore, Maryland. About four hundred diplomats, scientists, and
Antarctic program supervisors from forty-seven countries met. They discussed protecting the environment,
supporting science, and controlling travel to Antarctica.
Travel was an important subject at the last Antarctic
Treaty Consultative Meeting because the continent has become a popular place
for adventurous visitors.
year, about forty-five thousand travelers visited the continent. The number of
visitors has increased by ten times in the past fifteen years. Large ships that travel to the area sometimes
have accidents resulting in leaks of gasoline or oil. These chemicals can have
a very damaging effect on krill, sea creatures that are an important part of
the food chain in Antarctic waters.
members agreed to approve rules banning ships carrying more than five hundred
travelers. And, the ships cannot bring on land more than one hundred passengers
at a time. Rules would also call for new requirements for lifeboats on these
visitors are not the only concern. More and more scientific research stations
are also affecting the environment. There are about sixty research stations on
the continent. Jose Retamales is the
director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute.
JOSE RETAMALES: "Half the buildings you have seen, they
were not there five years ago. The Chinese station, the Korean Station, they're
new buildings. I don't think we should have so many stations in Antarctica."
stations are taking steps to protect the environment. For example, they are reusing
materials and heating buildings in a more environmentally friendly way. The scientists on Antarctica know better than
anyone about the effects of pollution and human behavior on this important
treasure of a continent.
This program was written and produced by Dana Demange.
I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can find transcripts, MP3s and
podcasts of our reports at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for
EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.