Antarctica: The Common Heritage
Antarctica ‘once isolated by time, distance and shrouds in mystery no longer remains the unknown continent.’ Since its discovery in 1820 explorers from many nations have struggled against turbulent seas, floating ice, raging storms and sub zero temperature to chart its frozen waters. With an area of about 14,20,00,000 square kilometers, the frozen continent is larger than any country in the world, with only less than 5% area visible while the rest is covered by a vast expanse of ice more than 200 meters thick and containing 90% of the worlds ice reserve. The Antarctic land is almost completely barren. There is no plant life or living organisms, but only mosses and microscopic fungi. But the Antarctic seas are almost as rich in life as the land is barren, with plenty of fish, seals and whales as well as many smaller living creatures.
In the international Geophysical year1957-58, twelve nations joined in a massive programme of Antarctic research and exploration, setting up many bases and scientific stations. The continent remains nature’s unique treasure endowed with minerals, oil and food resources. Its strategic location and potential mineral resources made it a site of intense territorial competition among the nations of the world and in 1959 a twelve nation-pact was signed reserving the continent for peaceful scientific investigation.
Thus, it has become a huge international laboratory where nations collaborate in research to enrich our understanding of the earth’s climate, wildlife and geographical history. The treaty was renewed in 1990 and India has joined the research team in establishing a base and scientific station in Antarctica. Prospects of availability of copious fresh water, rich oil and mineral sources, and the krill which may replace soya bean as a source of protein may rouse fierce competition for possession, among nations.
India, despite being late on the scene, has done some useful scientific spadework in the first two expeditions. The third which had landed there recently and which faced the ice winds, sub-zero temperatures, magnetic storms and needle-sharp snow had taken with it the expertise and equipment required for the purpose. India’s call for treating Antarctica as the common heritage of mankind needs to be heeded through result oriented persuasion. However, not individual efforts, but collective and cooperative endeavors by all nations will help making Antarctica a common heritage of mankind.