It is believed to possess immense oil and gas resources. The wild and untouched landscape and seas of the region is a continuing reminder of nature’s majesty. It is the world’s largest wildlife sanctuary and also harbours secrets of the past natural history. It is also believed to be the key to the world’s climate.
Antarctica was first sighted in 1820 by Nathaniel Palmer, an American navigator. John Davis made the first known landing the following years. The first natural history reports were available in 1829. The first mapping mission led by C. Wilkes in 1839 discovered that the massive ice pack covered an entire continent.
The early explorations were limited to the coastal areas, large-scale expeditions started in 1939. The largest ever was US Navy’s Operation High jump carrying 12 ships and 4,700 men. In 1957-58, 12 nations established about 60 research stations there.
The Antarctica Treaty of 1959 was signed by 12 nations. It provided for peaceful exploration of the continent by all nations. Of the 12 signatories to the treaty, seven have laid claims to territories in Antarctica but these claims are not recognised by the treaty. These seven nations are Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, New Zealand and Norway. The treaty was reviewed in Madrid (Spain) in May 1991.
So far 16 countries, including the US, the erstwhile USSR, Japan and India, have carried out extensive research in Antarctica. India has been sending expeditions regularly every year to Antarctica since 1981. It has set up two permanent manned research stations – Dakshin Gangotri and Maitri – in the icy continent.
Antarctica is covered with seven million cubic miles of ice. In winter, which lasts from April to September, the temperature is known to fall as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius. Blizzards and storms of a velocity of 80 kms. an hour are common.
Ice samples obtained by drilling ice packs have been found to be contaminated with radioactive isotopes, produced presumably as a result of nuclear explosions. Analysis of tiny metallic particles in the ice has revealed that these were volcanic or industrial in origin. The industrial particles must have reached the frozen continent via air routes from neighbouring continents.
Cosmic dust which constantly keeps falling on earth is difficult to identify owing to terrestrial contamination. But it could perhaps be searched in the virgin snow-covered peaks of Antarctica. Indian scientists have speculated that ‘spherules’ isolated from ice samples could be of cosmic origin.
A comparison of pollutants (such as lead and zinc) has revealed that both Antarctica and the higher reaches of the Himalayas have a clear and unpolluted environment. Also, the rock samples from Antarctica show a remarkable resemblance to rocks from Eastern Ghats of India.
Scientists believe that billions of years ago, India, Africa, Australia, South America and Antarctica formed a giant super-continent called Gondwanaland. Rock similarities lend credence to this belief.
One great achievement of Indian expeditions has been the discovery of a hitherto unmapped underwater mountain rising to a height of 3,000 metres from the sea-bed in the south Indian Ocean basin. It has been named ‘Indira Mount’. It has many peaks and was probably formed as a result of undersea volcanic activity.
The surrounding oceans and inland water lakes of Antarctica abound in weeds, fish and birds, but the land itself sustains very few living organisms. The continent experiences a perpetual sunshine during summer and perpetual night during winter.
During summer, short-living plants, mostly mosses and lichen, bloom. Some magnificent sea birds including 1.2 m tall emperor penguin, many varieties of albatross and gulls have been sighted. Animals spotted included blue whales, seals and dolphins. Above all, Antarctica waters swarm with an estimated 500 million tonnes of krill, the richest source of high protein sea food in the world.