For more than 2,000 years, Antarctica existed only as a landscape of the imagination. If there was an Arctic continent, Aristotle reasoned in his treatise Meteorology, there ought to be an antipode, an ‘ant-Arctic’. For centuries, scientists, explorers and cartographers speculated about this antipodean Terra nondum cognita, a southern land not-yet known. But it wasn’t until 1820 that the continent was supposedly ‘found’ by three separate groups: a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, a British expedition led by Edward Bransfield, and a fishing fleet that included the American seal-hunter Nathaniel Palmer, who sighted the snow-covered mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula from his small sloop.
The land that emerged was profoundly inhospitable and remote, explaining why even neighbouring communities who may have known of the region long before Palmer – such as Māori and other seafaring Polynesian peoples – did not settle there. Since Palmer’s sighting, the last continent to enter human history has passed through many phases: from a remote hunting ground for sealers and whalers who nearly drove some species to extinction, to a ‘frozen hell’ for successive waves of explorers eager to discover and conquer it, to the largest open-air science laboratory in the world, and to arguably the most protected environment on Earth, thanks to stringent international regulations. But, in our age, Antarctica has entered a new phase: it has become a paradox.
This paradox appears as Antarctica turns into one of the most threatened places on Earth. As warming events become longer and more frequent, ice-free surfaces (which cover only 0.4 per cent of the continent) are expected to dramatically increase. Though the disappearance of ice would cause some native plants to bloom, it would also lead to the spread of non-native species and the decline and possible extinction of native animals, such as the emperor and chinstrap penguins. Changes to the Antarctic also pose an existential threat to millions of humans living further north: if the West Antarctica Ice Sheet were to collapse, the global sea-level is estimated to rise between 3.3 and 6 metres – catastrophic for the millions of inhabitants living on low-lying coastal regions or islands.
Most threatened but also most protected, Antarctica is safeguarded by one of the most rigorous environmental protection regimes in the world. And yet, no restrictions on actions in Antarctica – whether on tourist numbers, the introduction of dogs and other animals, the dumping of waste, or mining operations – can prevent the changes wrought by anthropogenic climate change. This highlights a paradox in environmental governance that becomes prominent in our age: it is not enough to protect a place by protecting that place only. What we call the ‘paradox of protection’ happens when the means of protection don’t match the ecosystem dynamics. Such is the case in Antarctica. [Continue reading…]