Antarctica: A message from another planet | DW Documentary
Antarctica, a continent of mystery and natural wonders? Covered with ice four kilometers deep. Temperatures can drop to minus 93 degrees Celcius. 75 percent of our planet’s fresh water is locked up in its ice sheet? ...and yet it’s classified as the largest desert on Earth. This could be the only place in the world where diverse countries have rallied together in the name of peace and science — to protect the environment. The part about the ice and temperatures... sure. But the part about peace and the environment - it’s hard to believe.
Not just because I’m concerned about nature. But also because I lived in Syria in 2009. So, I don’t have much faith left in peace... ...or in the international community. But I’d love to be proven wrong.
We’ve come to Punta Arenas, where the polar research vessel Hespérides is picking up a group of Spanish scientists to take them to Antarctica. I’m already nervous. You’ll get used to it. It’s no big deal. It's amazing. I’ve even got a window.
Bottom bunk? Last night was rough. We went to bed early, but I had a hard time falling asleep. I must have slept just four hours because I was so nervous about the trip. I embarked on this journey to explore the myths of Antarctica. After one day at sea, we reach the end of the world.
At the southernmost tip of Argentina, Tierra del Fuego is still a thousand kilometers from the continent of Antarctica. This is the Drake Passage. Eddies and wind churn freely here, whipping up violent seas in one of the Earth’s roughest waterways. The worst storm to date hit us this year. It was our second trip back from Antarctica, we were about 18 hours from South America when a severe weather system hit us from the starboard.
We faced 7-meter-high waves and winds of up to 50 knots. Every time the crew sails into the Drake Passage, they have their mobile phones camera-ready. Here comes a monster wave! Could be taller! These are the outlines of Cape Horn, a notorious maritime graveyard that harbors the sunken wrecks of hundreds of ships. Even today the Drake Passage commands respect: everyone battens down the hatches. It wasn’t so dramatic on our trip, though. Luckily, technology has improved a lot, and today, before setting sail, we can check the weather forecast to find the best window for crossing the Drake Passage.
The adventure may not be as wild as it once was. But it’s still beautiful. Antarctica has been subject to territorial disputes for centuries. The passage was first sailed by Spaniard Francisco de Hoces in 1525.
Fifty years later, it was discovered by the English explorer Sir Francis Drake - and bears his name to this day. In the early 20th century, seven countries laid territorial claims to parts of Antarctica. The overlapping claims of the United Kingdom, Argentina and Chile caused tensions that erupted into armed conflict between Britain and Argentina in 1952. As the Cold War set in, the last thing the world needed was a new geopolitical flashpoint.
It was that realization that gave rise to the Antarctic Treaty. Many people including scientists were looking for ways to cooperate and there was the International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958 and that worked out so well that there was this idea that there could be cooperation in Antarctica. They felt that there was a way, and it’s shown in the article 4 of the Treaty, to set aside the claims and to say that there would be a demilitarization.
But it’s also, as?you may know, one of the first arms control treaties, so it was focused on keeping the peace in that respect as well. But none of that was the result of good will alone: the extreme climate made it difficult to exploit the region economically, and the US and Soviet Union staked their territorial claims quite late in the game. Four days after leaving Punta Arenas, the Hespérides reaches Antarctica. Everyone is excited. We got up at five in the morning to catch our first glimpse of the coastline.
What we hadn’t expected was the fog. We are two and a half miles away, and you can’t see anything. A few hours later, the fog lifts, and at last we can see Antarctica. The Hespérides’ first stop is King George Island.
The Spanish team is delivering supplies to the Uruguayan station Artigas. Antarctic cooperation is running smoothly. The Antarctic Treaty is very effective.
Under its terms, this location is devoted solely to science. It has played a key role in getting all countries to set aside their other interests, at least publicly, and it’s been that way for a very long time. Unfortunately, the same is not true in other parts of the world, where usually economic interests take precedence over scientific cooperation. Could this model be exported beyond Antarctica? That’s a good question. It’s something many on the planet would support.
Because King George Island offers the easiest access to Antarctica, it has the greatest concentration of stations on the entire continent. There are facilities here belonging to Uruguay, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, China, Poland, Peru, Ecuador, the Czech Republic, South Korea and Bulgaria. The Antarctic Treaty regulates how many new stations can open so that it doesn’t get too crowded.
It’s always better to coexist peacefully with your neighbors and get along. The first thing we did was to establish good relations with all our neighbors. Cooperation is vital in Antarctica. When there are tensions between the US and Russia, does it affect the cooperation in Antarctica? I wouldn't say there is no effect. But, by and large the cooperation has continued.
It doesn't mean that those tensions aren't in some respects in the background somewhere, But at least in the terms of the Antarctic programs and the Arctic programs and the work of the scientists together by and large that continues. In 2004, Russia imported wood from Siberian pines, its national tree, to construct a small Orthodox church here in Antarctica. Critics say it’s a sly way to stake a territorial claim.
The Chilean station has its own church too. It also has a school for the children of soldiers stationed on the base year-round. It is the closest thing you’ll find to a settlement in Antarctica. In the 1970s, Argentina’s military dictatorship sent pregnant women to give birth in Antarctica, to underscore its territorial claims.
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet copied the tactic. But it was widely viewed as provocative, and after the birth of eight Argentinians and three Chileans, both countries ended the policy. Today, more subtle strategies are used to cement territorial claims, as seen on Chilean television. The Easter Island will be overcast with partially cloudy skies, whereas Chilean Antarctica... whereas Chilean Antarctica will be mostly sunny. What do Chileans think about their country’s claims to Antarctica? To be honest, there isn’t much public debate on the topic. When I was little, people did talk about it a bit.
But later on, the political discourse subsided. Today people primarily associate it with environmental protection. That’s the trend I’ve observed, especially among young people. Chileans my age hardly discuss the issue. For us it’s simple: we see Antarctica as a place where many nations come together. There’s no reason why we should be more entitled to it than anyone else.
Do you think we can save Antarctica if we’ve failed to do the same in other places? I think it’s exactly because we’ve made so many mistakes in other places that we have a shot at saving Antarctica. Spain has two stations in Antarctica. Its National Research Center operates the Juan Carlos I Station on Livingston Island. It was built in the late 1980s and remodeled in 2008 into a modern facility that looks a bit like a space station.
This station is used in the summer. It doesn’t need to withstand the harsh conditions you’d expect to encounter in Antarctica. Today, there is hardly any wind, but two days ago we had gusts of nearly 40 knots, or 80 kilometers an hour, which drives the wind chill factor down to minus 15 or 20 degrees Celcius. Jerónimo López and his team study the continent’s geology, which they say is of essential importance to the rest of the planet.
Antarctica affects the whole world’s climate, doesn’t it? It is the planet’s cold factory. It’s really cold in the Arctic, too, but not to the same extent. There’s also a lot more ice in Antarctica than in the Arctic. Antarctic deep seawater reaches as far as the Iberian Peninsula and continues to circulate around the northern hemisphere. These waters sometimes flow all the way up to the Arctic, where they cool back down again. The motor driving this circulation is Antarctica.
One of the most important projects at the Juan Carlos I Station is its study of the Hurd and Johnson glaciers. In recent years we’ve evaluated the state of the mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. We found that the gains of ice have been greater than the losses of its thinning glaciers.
But next year’s data will probably indicate the exact opposite. So, is it getting colder in Antarctica? Yes, it is getting colder, but our measurements are limited to the last 15 years. Scientific studies need to examine a period of at least 30 years. If we look closer, we can see there was a gradual temperature increase for 15 years, and a temperature drop in the subsequent 15 years. But globally the trend is towards warming.
On our trip, we didn’t see much snow, but the year before, there was so much snow that the 2-meter-high stakes used to monitor the glacier disappeared. To find them, the Spanish team had to dig, and dig and dig. Located next to Livingston Island is Half Moon Island. We made a discovery in this miniature-sized Antarctica: the weather here changes very suddenly. Within minutes, the snowfall turns into a blizzard — clocking winds of 80 kilometers an hour. The Hespérides’ next stop is Deception Island, home to the station Gabriel de Castilla.
This island is the caldera of an active volcano. It last erupted in 1970. Huge glaciers are concealed beneath the ash. The Gabriel de Castilla Station is run by the Spanish Army. Wait, didn’t we say the Antarctic Treaty bans all military activity? Due to the island’s difficult terrain, and the danger posed by the volcano, it was decided that the army was best equipped to operate the station. Our mission is to make the visiting scientists feel at home. They come for a very specific time period to work on research, take samples, do experiments and collect data.
Our job is to ensure all the logistics are in place so they can concentrate on their work. So, there are no weapons here? None that I know of? Deception Island is home to a large colony of chinstrap penguin. Andrés Barbosa has been studying these animals for twenty years. There are species like the Adélie penguin whose populations have decreased dramatically on the Antarctic Peninsula, by about 60%. The chinstrap penguin is also threatened by extinction.
But other species like the gentoo penguin have profited from present-day conditions. Its populations have increased by about 15 to 20%. That is basically what’s been happening over the course of 4 billion years on our planet — it’s called evolution. There are species that thrive under positive conditions, then they vanish and are replaced by others. Andrés installed a camera to monitor the penguins all year long.
The images track the birds and their offspring as they gradually flee the onset of colder temperatures. We see seagulls fly by? The drifting icebergs. The arrival of storms that bury the camera in snow and then blow it free again. The long, lonesome winter. The formation of sea ice.
Sunsets that no one else sees. In October, the penguins return. Soon they begin to lay their eggs. And a few weeks later the chicks are born. One of the Spanish Navy’s tasks is to map the undersea topography around these islands. Drive it deeper. Zero eight-six.
Because the Antarctic coast is so immense, less than 1% of the area underwater has been properly mapped. If for example you have to change your ship’s route because of an iceberg, it can be dangerous to leave the zones for which there are accurate data. So we need to produce more maps to prevent shipwrecks, oil spills or other accidents. Not just to protect human lives, but also to prevent damage to the environment here.
We really have lots of work ahead, it will take years. Every country with the ability to cooperate should pitch in. The British captain William Smith made the first recorded landing in Antarctica in 1819 — an accident, after he was blown off course by powerful winds. Spain claims the honor for Gabriel de Castilla, who it says discovered the continent in 1603, though that’s never been proven.
It’s probable that seal hunters set foot on these islands before William Smith, but they kept quiet about their discovery so as not to have to share its treasure trove of fur. These are photos of organisms from the Weddell Sea, and nobody knows what family, genus or species they belong to. They have yet to be classified. Which is true for lots of completely different types of animals. Despite its remote location, far removed from almost all human life on Earth, the Southern Ocean is a vital and precious region of the planet. A team of modern-day explorers has been dispatched to the region by the University of Barcelona.
People thought that, because it’s so cold, with few resources in terms of food, there would be little fauna on the sea bed. But that’s not true. Conditions are harsh, but organisms adapt. The ecosystems in Antarctica are the oldest on the planet, so species have had a long time to adapt.
And there are species that are in fact unique to the ecosystem here. Do you feel a bit like explorers? Well, yeah, I do! Explorers of Antarctica. Today... and in times past. In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen of Norway and Britain’s Robert Falcon-Scott raced to be the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen triumphed, while Scott’s team perished trying to return.
Though his expedition ended in tragedy, Scott was celebrated as a hero. On his way back Scott had picked up a fossil from a tree also found in South America and India. The find supported the theory that the continents were once joined and had drifted apart. So the race to the South Pole contributed to a better understanding of our planet’s evolutionary history.
The remnants of an old whaling station can still be found on Deception Island. Long ago, the location was referred to as “Red Bay,” because of the blood-stained water, or “Stinking Bay," due to the stench of rotting meat and processing oil. It was shut down in 1931. An international ban on commercial whaling came into force in 1986.
Japan was allocated a quota for scientific research purposes. It was long suspected of violating the terms of this quota by pursuing commercial whaling in Antarctica. We support sustainable use. We would like to see whales forever in the future. Because that’s the only way sustainable utilization is possible.
It is free for any nation to have particular ways of dealing animals in their nations, and in their culture. In 2014, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled against Japan’s whaling program. The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking, and treating of whales, in connection with JARPA II, are not for purposes of scientific research pursuant article 8, paragraph 1 of the Convention.
Japan complied with the court decision. But only for one year, after which its ships were back out whaling in the Southern Ocean again. Whaling is not the only problem we should be concerned about. The Patagonian toothfish is an Antarctic treasure. It’s subject to catch limits, but amid high demand, poaching is a lucrative business. Poachers ignore quotas and rules on fishing techniques.
These mandate the use of longlining, which allows for very selective fishing. But poachers use giant driftnets that indiscriminately kill tons of other fish as well. In 2014 and 2016, Spanish police, Interpol and the New Zealand navy took joint action against Vidal Armadores, a Spanish company accused of illegal fishing. It was a milestone internationally, because Spain issued a public acknowledgment, saying: We admit this is a Spanish pirate fishing company, and we know there are many others. But this story didn’t have a happy ending. Vidal Armadores appealed a lower court’s conviction.
The Supreme Court decided in its favor, ruling that the alleged poaching had taken place in international waters, and Spanish courts had no jurisdiction to try the case. From here, the Hespérides heads south. It sails into the Gerlache Strait — one of the most spectacular locations on the entire continent. This is the Argentinian station Primavera. The Primavera Station is run by the Army. Unlike other stations, it has a system of raised walkways, so we avoid trampling on fragile plants, including moss and algae, so as to cause the least possible damage.
Why is it that international cooperation works here, but not at the UN? I’m not a foreign policy expert so I can’t say, but the Antarctic Treaty works very well here. If you ask me why, I can’t really say. It just does. I wish the rest of the world were this way, but probably there is more egoism in other places...
Is there cooperation between Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom, too? Yes, yes. In fact, I arrived through the Frei Station. There’s no problem in that respect. Here in Antarctica, it works perfectly. I’d be happy to show you a bit more of the station. The commander mentioned the Frei Station, which is Chilean, but nothing specific about the UK.
It may just have been coincidence, or maybe he was avoiding a sensitive topic. In 1982, Argentina and Britain went to war over the Falkland Islands. For many, it left wounds that’ve never healed.
For days, we watched otherworldly scenes unfold before our eyes. During those weeks, we discovered Antarctica’s infinite beauty. And one of its biggest threats. We saw record visitor numbers in 2008-2009, with some 46,000 tourists.
The financial crisis hit the tourism industry and numbers dropped to below 25,000. But recently they were back up to 46,000 again. What if the numbers keep rising? We don’t know what will happen. I think numbers will increase, but these trips aren’t cheap, they cost between 5 and 10 thousand Euros per trip. Not a lot of people can afford such luxury. For every researcher in Antarctica, there are now ten tourists.
It’s a business that rakes in some 400 million euros per year. A few years ago, an NGO opened a museum here, inside a British station dating from the 1950’s. There are rules of conduct for visitors, but more needs to be done. It would help if tourists were required to make a monetary contribution to regional conservation. Currently, only ten of the five to ten thousand euros they pay for their trip go toward erasing their footprint. But none goes to conservation management.
Often it’s the tourists themselves who file complaints against the tour operators who flout regulations. Do you think tourism may have a negative impact in Antarctica? Personally we were able to have a lot of time to walk and trot and spend a lot of time walking around the island. And so far we have found some trash, which is very surprising in a way, because in our mind, or at least in my mind, I thought Antarctica would be a very pristine and remote location, would be untouched.
But then looking at a milk carton from China and I’m Chinese, I can read that, and then looking at different water bottles and waste on beaches and it is shocking in a way. It’s not just tourism — any human presence in Antarctica can pose a threat. We’re looking for aliens. Aliens in the sense of species that didn’t exist in the region before. They arrive, check out the local conditions, and if they meet their ecological requirements, they settle and propagate. We want to identify the invasive species that have displaced local populations.
If the temperature rises even slightly, species that would previously have been unable to survive or propagate can invade and occupy the habitats of native species and supplant them. How do these invasive species reach Antarctica? They arrive through different natural channels, either on the wind, by sea, on tree trunks or other floating objects, or on animals. But natural routes aren’t the main source of invasion, it’s us humans who inadvertently carry them here on vehicle wheels or our shoes. Many species die in the harsh conditions, but other more hardy ones become invasive. That is why we were required by the Spanish Polar Committee to carefully vacuum each of the items we took with us to Antarctica. Can you solve this problem alone? No. But the great thing about Antarctica is the cooperation
between the many countries active here. A good example is our success in eradicating an invasive species two years ago. It was a coordinated effort of the Spanish, British and Argentine Polar Committees — and that despite the fact that Britain and Argentina have a history of conflict in the region. We eradicated the invasive species. We ecologists are the Earth’s doctors, and we have diagnosed a disease. Now the onus is on society to follow the doctors’ orders.
After a week on the Gerlache Strait, the Hespérides makes its way back to the Spanish station. From there, it will return home. But I couldn’t leave Antarctica without investigating the world’s single biggest threat to peace and the environment. Without a doubt, there are mineral resources in Antarctica.
And there is oil. And there are not just hydrocarbons in the form of natural gas and petroleum, but also minerals, like nickel, gold and silver. Some recent publications even report findings of a type rock that may harbor diamonds. It has become increasingly easier and cheaper to reach Antarctica. There could be minerals here with a value so great it might justify their exploitation, even in such a remote location and hostile environment. I witnessed the Prestige oil spill firsthand.
We conducted research to determine the spill’s impact along the entire coast of northern Spain, and the findings were devastating. Oil isn’t just hard to remove: it’s impossible to remove. We can take off the upper layer, but the rest stays stuck. An oil spill in Antarctica on the scale of the Prestige would be a total, utter catastrophe. The oil’s impact on the ice sheet would be far more dramatic than any of the affects it can have in other regions. Why? First of all because it would be impossible to reach all of the affected areas, and secondly, when it freezes, the oil gets trapped inside the ice.
So it would be much harder for marine currents to disperse the oil into other areas. In 1989, signatories of the Antarctic Treaty were poised to open the door to limited oil and mineral prospecting. That had new countries lining up to join the club. But then once again, a miracle happened.
Today saw the signing of the Madrid Protocol. The agreement aims to protect the environment of Antarctica, the only remaining pristine territory on our planet. It’s set to stay in force for the next 50 years. As so often, the world’s most powerful countries were divided. A row erupted between the more environmentally conscious, mostly European, nations and the United States, Soviet Union, China and Britain. Ultimately all sides agreed to a 50- year moratorium on the exploitation of mineral resources.
The ban can only be lifted with the unanimous agreement of all signatories - which is virtually impossible. The protocol was a compromise between the interests of two sides. It banned the exploitation of resources that could cause severe pollution and irreparable damage to Antarctica, but it failed to impose a permanent ban. The Madrid Protocol will be subject to review in 2048. What happens then? Achieving consensus on anything is a very hard thing to do.
So as long as you haven’t convinced all of the countries that a change from current policy is needed then the current ban on mining continues. As a legal matter. That may be, but some are still tempted. In 2007,
Britain asserted new claims to a vast area of the seabed off Antarctica. There’s a reason why countries go to great lengths, shipping resources and people, to open stations in Antarctica: they want to ensure they’ll be there when the continent is divvied up. Even if no one will say so publicly. As a researcher, do you feel you’re being exploited for that end? No not at all, I have always believed it’s better to join forces with your enemy to take advantage of all their resources. If, through our research, we can obtain data that will help protect Antarctica, I believe that’s our best option And so, the Spanish researchers and military personnel take leave of the southernmost continent. Shortly before we reach the mainland, we receive footage of the penguin colony on Deception Island.
The chicks were born 20 days ago. The embryo in this egg is dead. Its parents can’t lay another until next year. It’s hard for them to let it go.
Humankind also tries desperately to protect the things it loves. And science has shown that the human heart is bigger than that of a penguin. Or would you beg to differ? No, that’s one thing we can agree on.