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Can Antarctica remain a refuge for science and peace?

Antarctica is virtually uninhabited by people. There are no roads, no cities, no government. But thanks to a remarkable Cold War diplomatic breakthrough, the last continent ever discovered remains a place devoted almost exclusively to science. William Brangham reports on how humans first found Antarctica, and how it proves that occasionally, even rivals can become partners.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now the last in our series about Antarctica.

    We are excited to announce that we're also launching a new podcast based on this reporting trip. We hope you will listen, and more on how to hear it later.

  • But first:

    For most of human history, the icy continent at the bottom of the world was an unknown, unvisited place. Humans discovered Antarctica only about 200 years ago.

    But, as William Brangham and producers Mike Fritz and Emily Carpeaux report, how the continent is governed today has fostered a unique diplomatic and scientific cooperation among many different nations.

    It's part of our weekly series on the Leading Edge of science.

  • William Brangham:

    There's no place further south on Earth than Antarctica, a virtually uninhabited continent, covered almost entirely by ice. There's no indigenous human population, no official government, not even a single paved road.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    It was the last place to explore.

  • William Brangham:

    Alexandra Isern is the head of Antarctic sciences for the National Science Foundation, which also supports some "NewsHour" reporting.

    She points out that, for thousands of years, humans never even set foot on the continent. But how we found this place and how it's governed today is far different than anywhere else on Earth.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    It's an excellent example of cooperation.

  • William Brangham:

    The first humans to actually come to Antarctica were likely hunters chasing whales and seals in the early 1800s, hoping to kill them for their pelts or boil them down for their oil.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    So, there was a real economy built around whaling.

  • William Brangham:

    Once those mammals were discovered here, it set off something of an Antarctic gold rush.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    You still see remnants today around some of the stations where — particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula, where the whalers would have had a kill, and they would render the oil on shore.

  • William Brangham:

    Relics of this once booming industry are scattered across the continent. This was a former British and Norwegian whaling station. Those huge tanks? They were once full of whale oil.

    But once the whale and seal populations were decimated, the hunters went home.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    It wasn't that there was any environmental reason. They left because they had fished everything out.

  • William Brangham:

    Up until this point, whole sections of Antarctica remained a mystery. Explorers had largely stayed away for reasons that went beyond just the harsh conditions, according to historian and author Stephen Pyne.

  • Stephen Pyne:

    Nobody's going to get wealthy in Antarctica. There are no cities to sack, there are no peoples to convert. There's nothing there.

    The further you go into the interior, the more and more there is only one thing, and that is ice. It's probably as close on Earth that you can come to being on another planet.

  • William Brangham:

    But, by the early 1900s, several nations rushed to explore the continent's untouched interior. This kicked off what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.

  • Stephen Pyne:

    This was how you showed that you were a scientific presence. This was a matter of prestige and status. It showed that you had arrived.

  • Alexandra Isern:

    They were hardy souls. We still have the historic huts that they used. And their clothes and everything are still there. It's a miracle they made it through any winter with what they were wearing.

  • William Brangham:

    But some early explorers didn't make it out, like Britain's Robert Falcon Scott, whose entire party trying to return from a race to the South Pole froze and starved to death in 1912.

  • Stephen Pyne:

    Antarctica proved exceptionally tricky, because all of the things that centuries of exploration by the West had relied on, having native peoples as guides, being able to follow rivers, being able to identify mountains, all of the sorts of markers of exploration and the indices that you had succeeded disappeared.

  • William Brangham:

    But perhaps the most famous stories about Antarctica are not stories of discovery. They are stories about incredible feats of survival.

    In 1914, British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew set off to cross the entire continent in a ship called the Endurance. But disaster struck before they even reached the continent. The Endurance was trapped by the sea ice that encircles Antarctica.

  • Katie Murray:

    It's one of these stories where you think the worst has happened, that nothing else can go wrong, and then it does.

    This is when the rest of the world really gets to know about Antarctica.

  • William Brangham:

    Katie Murray is a polar historian and expert on Shackleton's Endurance voyage. In tourist season, she works for the company One Ocean Expeditions.

    We talked in the ship's movie theater. She told us how Shackleton became a legend, not so much for his exploration, but simply by keeping his men alive after the Endurance was crushed to pieces.

    Stranded on the ice, they ran out of food and were eventually forced to eat their dogs. Later, they used small boats to navigate two death-defying ocean crossings, before finally landing at a remote whaling station on South Georgia Island.

  • Katie Murray:

    The Shackleton Endurance story is ultimately a feel-good story because everybody survives, absolutely against the odds.

    When the worst happens, and your ship goes down, no help is coming for you, you need to rescue yourself, effectively, and you manage to do so, that's absolutely incredible.

  • William Brangham:

    Over the next several decades, dozens of countries came to Antarctica and tried to plant their nations' flags on different parts of the continent.

    To help establish those territorial claims, countries built scientific bases like these all over the continent. And, according to Tucker Scully, who for years was chief negotiator on polar issues for the U.S. government, there was genuine science to be done.

  • Tucker Scully:

    It was a place that was obviously the least studied part of the planet, particularly in things like the Earth's magnetic field, upper atmospheric physics, plate tectonics. A lot of the scientific community wanted to get into Antarctica to do that kind of work.

  • William Brangham:

    While science was driving a new age of exploration, by the late 1950s, there were growing concerns that the ice-covered continent would one day be exploited or colonized by the world's powers.

    So, in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, 12 nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, hammered out a dramatic breakthrough, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty.

    The treaty says that Antarctica has to remain exclusively peaceful. That means no military exercises, no nuclear testing, no nuclear dumping. It also says that scientists can come here and conduct research wherever they want, regardless of other countries' claims, and that the findings of their work have to be shared publicly.

  • Tucker Scully:

    The Antarctic Treaty found two issues that were really resonating internationally at the time, one of which was cooperation in science.

    And, secondly, even between two extreme adversaries, like the Soviet Union and the United States, you could, in fact, create areas that were off-limits to military activities. And it worked, and continues to work.

  • William Brangham:

    Evan Bloom is currently America's top diplomat for the Arctic and Antarctic. He says the sheer difficulty of doing anything in Antarctica still helps strengthen international cooperation.

  • Evan Bloom:

    In these remote places, you have to support each other, and share logistics and food and all sorts of other things to make it all work out.

    So there was a strong push on the scientific side that was helping the diplomats at the time figure out that, well, maybe we can preserve this area for peace and science.

  • William Brangham:

    Today, however, there are new challenges on the horizon. Manmade climate change is already altering this pristine landscape, and potentially harming some of the continent's iconic species.

    There's also growing pressure for more tourism and more large-scale commercial fishing. And with the vast majority of the world's freshwater frozen in Antarctica, some hotter, drier nations have begun eying all that ice.

    In fact, a business in the United Arab Emirates recently announced plans to try to tow a massive iceberg containing billions of gallons of freshwater over 7,000 miles to the Persian Gulf.

    And, finally, while some of the Antarctic Treaty's environmental protections expire in 2048 and will have to be renewed.

  • Claire Christian:

    The best thing that we can do for humanity in terms of Antarctica is keep it like it is.

  • William Brangham:

    Claire Christian is the executive director of the advocacy group known as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.

  • Claire Christian:

    A lot of countries are justifiably proud of what they have achieved in Antarctica, in terms of preserving it as a place for peace and science.

    And I think that that is something that they don't want to go back on.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the biggest questions marks facing this remarkable continent is, will that commitment hold?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Antarctica.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a remarkable series.

    Thank you to William and your team.

    Our new podcast on Antarctica is called "The Last Continent," and it gives a much deeper look at our team's journey. We hope you will listen. You can search for "The Last Continent" or "PBS NewsHour" on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app to subscribe and download episodes.

    You can write us or write a review, or listen directly on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/thelastcontinent.

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