Why Do Scientists Want To Abandon Antarctica? | Unveiled

Why Do Scientists Want To Abandon Antarctica? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
Is it time to leave Antarctica? Join us, and find out!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the mystery of Antarctica! With whispers that scientists might soon abandon the southernmost continent on Earth, we ask why that could be necessary? What is Antarctica REALLY like, and is it time to stop the human presence there?


Why Do Scientists Want to Abandon Antarctica?</h4>


Our empty, southernmost continent has entranced scientists and sailors for hundreds of years. First were the desperate attempts to prove the existence of the Antarctic ice sheet at all, and today, attempts to protect the south pole and its unique environment from humans. But is Antarctica proving to be more trouble than it’s worth?


This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: why would scientists want to abandon Antarctica?


Officially discovered in 1820 and rumored to exist for decades beforehand, Antarctica remains shrouded in mystery even two centuries after we first spotted it. Isolated and hostile, Antarctica is the only place in the world that was, until the modern age, totally untouched by humans. This makes its ecosystem extremely unique. Many animals, fish, and plants live only on its icy planes and mountains. Since the early 20th century, humans have been venturing to Antarctica to test their mettle, with many dying in the process – like the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition. Others have set up outposts on the ice. The most famous and largest Antarctic base is McMurdo Station, an American research base on Ross Island. Since Antarctica isn’t supposed to be used for military purposes, McMurdo is exclusively for scientific research. In the summer, it’s home to about 1,000 people, and even in the harsh winter, over 100 remain there, waiting for the ice to thaw. It was established back in 1956, originally under the jurisdiction of the US Navy, but all that had to change following various peace treaties. Since 1960, it’s been a place for science and little else.


But McMurdo isn’t the only base in the south pole, and not every base has had the same longevity. There are a handful of eerie, abandoned bases down there, too. Some are military bases that predate the Antarctic Treaty System, others were built for exploration, research, or whaling. In the early 1900s, sailors erected structures in Whalers Bay, a tiny port in the Shetland islands, before abandoning the area. It has 35 graves and, according to some, is haunted! In fact, it’s been called the most haunted place in Antarctica. Also spooky is Stromness on South Georgia Island, another derelict whaling station from the same period. In 1916, explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton and a small crew reached the settlement seeking aid after their ship the Endurance was crushed in pack ice. Like Whalers Bay, Stromness also boasts several graves. Luckily, the institution of whaling didn’t last long enough to do lasting damage to the Antarctic ecosystem. During the Second World War, more bases were established as part of a British plan called Operation Tabarin. Shockingly, even the Nazis built on Antarctica, sending a German expedition there in the 1930s – though nothing really came of it, besides a territory dispute with Norway.


Ultimately, these small settlements were abandoned because the area is just THAT dangerous, and it takes a lot of technology for humans to live comfortably there. People sometimes have to spend far longer in Antarctica than intended because it’s so hard to land ships and planes there during the winter. Even in recent years, people have been stranded out there for days waiting for large icebreakers to make their way through. Thankfully, Antarctic bases are well stocked with food and other resources, since events like this, while unfortunate, aren’t exactly rare. The simple fact is that Antarctica is an extremely dangerous place, and that’s one reason why many scientists don’t stay on the continent for long. It’s a great location to go to for your scientific career, but it’s not great for a family. 


You may be surprised to learn that there ARE two small schools there, though, set up for the children of scientists working at Argentine and Chilean bases. But as you can imagine, Antarctica is a difficult place for children to be, and few people would see it as the ideal place to start a home. That’s just one reason for scientists to make their stay temporary, though. Their research might also come to an end, or they might decide that they’ve had enough time down there and that they should step aside for somebody else to take their place and experience the continent. After all, if you’re not a scientist, even getting to Antarctica is extremely expensive otherwise, since you’ll need to go on an Antarctic cruise.


But could scientists decide, en masse, to leave the continent for some other reason? Well, even though we’re extremely careful nowadays about protecting unique places like this, you could argue that any human presence in Antarctica is too much. Humans aren’t designed to live in conditions like that, so cold and so isolated; we generally need warmth and large social groups to be truly happy. The same way that the treaties in the 1960s changed what Antarctica could be used for, it could one day be decided that no scientific endeavor is important enough to threaten the integrity of its unique ecosystem. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, then, that we might one day dismantle every single Antarctic base and ensure all the humans leave, to give it the best chance of remaining safe and untouched.


Of course, for this to ever work, a lot of OTHER things would need to change, too. With or without a human presence in Antarctica, its environment is under threat for the same reason every other environment on Earth is: climate change. Climate change doesn’t only affect the areas where carbon emissions occur. Even if we departed from Antarctica, it wouldn’t do anything to prevent the effects of the melting sea ice and glaciers there, or to stop habitat loss for animals like penguins. 


On the other hand, Antarctica thankfully isn’t under threat from activities like hunting or fishing. You’re actually not allowed to hunt or fish at all without the proper licenses and permits, and those are handed out very rarely and only to people who have a valid, scientific reason to do so. This is a part of the world where it’s against the law to even approach a penguin too closely. And if you’re a dedicated scientist who’s gone all the way there for research, you’re not going to want to hunt Antarctic wildlife in the first place. Could this want to preserve, eventually, become another reason to leave, though?


Perhaps, but it could also prove the opposite. Antarctica is arguably also our best route toward understanding how to live on other planets like Mars, or even other moons like Europa. This icy realm is so cut off (but still ever so slightly accessible) that it provides a constant, reliable and essentially alien backdrop. So, really, it doesn’t make sense that we’d decide to up and leave it – especially not until we’ve established those far more extreme colonies.


Could there yet be other reasons why scientists would want to leave, then? If neither the hostile wildlife and climate, nor the extreme weather and threat of getting stranded there, are enough to dissuade scientists, what else might? Well, maybe it would take something extremely drastic to get people to leave – something like finding an unfriendly society down there. Many have speculated that if aliens were going to land anywhere on Earth, then Antarctica could be a top destination, thanks to its abundant water, treacherous terrain, and near total isolation. So, if there WERE aliens there, and Earth scientists found them, and they WEREN’T friendly, then it would figure that those researchers would want to get as far away from Antarctica as possible and very quickly!


Considering the wide range of experiments happening in Antarctica, including experiments involving space research - such as at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory - any hypothetically hidden aliens might be very interested in what’s going on down there. It would certainly provide an interesting insight into how advanced our technologies were. Frightening us away from Antarctica might then be part of a wider strategy to keep us contained to Earth for as long as possible, if that is what they wanted! But, of course, there are plenty of problems with this line of thinking. First, there’s nothing by way of official confirmation (or even suggestion) that alien life is down there. But second, even if there were, then their setting up a base on our planet only to then prompt a mass exodus from that location… probably isn’t a watertight strategy. One, it would blow their cover; two, it would reveal that they likely don’t come in peace; and three, it would only encourage us to pursue space research further.


Aliens, it almost certainly isn’t. But, still, with growing suggestions that some scientists might want out, it remains crucial to understand the difficulties at play. Antarctica is a scientific goldmine, and we’ve developed a lot of technology to keep humans there long-term without harming the local environment… but it’s still an extremely harsh life that we’re asking those humans to live.