December 30, 2020

James Cook was the first European explorer to discover Antarctica in 1774.  He immediately dismissed the land mass because the waters and ice that surrounded it, believing no one would take the time to properly discover the continent.  He wrote in his diary that even if someone did, “The world will derive no benefit from it.”  That did not dissuade the most adventurous sailors from trying to prove Cook wrong.  On Jan. 27, 1820, Fabian von Bellingshausen became the first person to spot land south of the Antarctic Circle.  Later, John Davis was the first to set foot on Antarctica, stepping onto the continent in 1821.

In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the whole continent to peaceful collaboration for scientific investigation.  In 1961, the treaty went into effect, and all territorial claims any country had made before that time were suspended.  In 1991, the Treaty expanded to agree not to explore for oil or other minerals for at least 50 years, or until 2048, at which point it can be revisited.  In total, there are 52 countries that have signed the treaty.  This treaty is also meant to establish Antarctica as a zone free of military operations and nuclear development.  The land It is only open for peace and international cooperation, and the treaty ensures no countries dispute who owns Antarctica.  Because of this treaty, Antarctica has never been part of a war or a site of war.

With its focus on science, research, and world peace, I was saddened to learn that the world is encroaching on the continent despite protections.  As the pandemic wracked the rest of the world, Antarctica remained the last continent without a single case recorded.  That ended on December 18, 2020.  The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs announced, “The Chilean Antarctic Program has decided to monitor the health status of those at its stations and preform PCR tests for covid-19.”  According to the New York Times, the virus was found in 26 members of the Chilean military and 10 maintenance workers.  They have since been evacuated from the base and placed in isolation.

Thoughts:  Despite robust efforts to keep the virus out of Antarctica, the world has failed.  One of the fears for researchers is the proximity and isolation forced during the southern Hemispheres winter (our summer) when travel is impossible.  While the stations have been closed to outsiders, travel on cruise ships has restarted and is available in January 2021, boasting reduced rates (averages $2,700 per person USD).  This includes flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia on Cape Horn and promises “all the amenities of cruising.”  Now if I could only get to Buenos Aires.  Or perhaps I will wait a little longer.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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