Its 12 million square miles are the last unspoiled place on Earth. But because it has food reserves that could wipe out world hunger and energy reserves that could last two centuries, Antarctica may become the site of a world-wide struggle.
"Antarctica: The Last Continent" (Tuesday at 10 on Maryland Public Television) tells both an awe-inspiring and troubling story. Michael Tobias, who produced the special for KQED in San Francisco and is now executive producer for special projects with MPT, admits that "there's sort of a crisis down there."
Tobias, who filmed last January (summer in Antarctica), flew with his crew to the tip of Argentina to board an Argentine naval ice breaker for a 2 1/2-day trip through the icebergs of the Drake Passage to that country's Esperenza station.
Although Capt. James Cook discovered Antarctica in the 1700s, Tobias says Cook's English sailing ships could not dock because of the gigantic icebergs. But his discoveries fueled expeditions intent on slaughtering whales and seals for their oil and pelts to the point of extinction. Later, American Adm. Richard Byrd established the first base in Antarctica.
Today, from December to March, three ships a week arrive at each of a dozen stations. More than 60,000 tourists have visited during the past decade, and Argentina has already started to build a hotel at Esperenza and to increase its travel business.
"Where the scientists are working and where the tourists are going is confined to a very tiny area where the animals are mating," said Tobias. That area, he explained, is about 300 miles of ice-free region along the 18,000 miles of coastline. There, more than 40 bases from more than a dozen countries are established. "There's no police force, no law in place to protect the environment," he said. He compared the United States' McMurdo station to "a little frontier town," populated by about 1,000 scientists and Navy and Air Force personnel working under the umbrella of the National Science Foundation.
As seems to be his wont elsewhere, man has already taken his toll on the continent. Seven nations claim sovereignty, and six are already harvesting crill, the tiny fish eaten by whales, seals, penguins and sea birds. Protein-rich crill could be used to wipe out hunger among mankind, but overharvesting crill could also upset the continent's food chain. Naturalists worry about man's effect on the wildlife; environmentalists are concerned about the "hole" in the ozone layer over Antarctica that filters the sun's ultraviolet rays -- possibly related to the blanket of pollution man has created over his own atmosphere, the "greenhouse effect."
Then there's bilge from vessels, diesel fuel, metals, plastics, garbage and toxins, including DDT and PCB contamination that have already affected some sea life. "Antarctica is becoming a garbage dump," says narrator Bob Jiminez. "Only New Zealanders take their garbage home." Cleaning up is expensive: Of the $117 million the United States spent there in 1986, only $10 million was used for research, less for environmental studies. The rest was for maintenance and logistics.
As man uses up natural resources in the developed world, he turns his eyes to the planet's last continent, where he finds minerals, coal, iron, petroleum and off-shore oil and gas. The 36 nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty agreed, among other things, to eschew military action, but Tobias acknowledged that the treaty, which comes up for review in 1991, "is really a nebulous document," without enforcement.
The international environmental organization Greenpeace fears for Antarctica and wants to turn the last continent into a world park. Tobias agrees, calling Antarctica "vast, the most beautiful place in the world. Go before it's too late, but go in the spirit of integrity. It's the last unspoiled place on earth."