Imagine all the people, living life in peace . .. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.
Coldest, windiest, driest, most isolated, least populated, most pristine, and most peaceful—Antarctica is a land of extremes, offering precious perspectives on the Earth system and its relation to humankind (Fig. IV). These insights about Antarctica and the Earth system largely emanate from scientific investigations (Fig. III). Moreover, in Antarctica, science has the added value of being a central pillar for the ''firm foundation'' of international cooperation (Fig. V). Essentially, science offers a method and philosophy for studying and managing the world we live in.
The scientific method starts with a question, which grows into hypotheses that are objectively tested to reveal likely answers. Rooted in inquiry, this experimental process is fundamental to the ''progress of all mankind'' through the identification of resources and development of basic tools, technologies, and industries (Chapter 4: Awakening Science). After letting the genie out of the bottle, science further contributes to the design of strategies for assessing, controlling, and mitigating impacts from our progress (Chapter 11: Environmental Protection).
Beyond its quantitative mien—which is paradoxically perceived with awe and disdain—science offers humankind common ground in searching for answers about the past, present, and future. In fact, the further we project backward or forward, the more central science becomes.
Why is understanding the Earth as a system relevant to the world we live in?
Perspectives of time and space—which are fundamental to science—place events, entities, and phenomena in context across gradients and continua: bigger or smaller, faster or slower, older or younger. In essence, science provides objective references for integrating information and for understanding the complexities of our world (Chapter 2: Conceptual Integration).
Since its origin 4 to 5 billion years ago, the Earth has produced continents that slowly move horizontally and vertically across the planet surface. Antarctica, as a keystone fragment of the Gondwana supercontinent, provides a focal point for describing continental motion at various intervals during the past 200 million years.
During the past 65 million years, as Antarctica became isolated and glaciated, the Earth system began cooling (Chapter 6: Moving Planet). Superimposed on this long-term cooling trend are relatively short-term excursions when the Earth warms and cools. Water—cycling from the ocean through the atmosphere onto the continents and back—has been preserved in records that reflect glacial-interglacial climate shifts with millennial frequencies during the past half-million years. During the past 17,000 years, since the Last Glacial Maximum, sea level has risen more than 120 meters—further underscoring the driving dynamics of the hydrologic cycle in the Earth system (Chapter 7: Flowing Planet).
Telescoping toward the present, fossil assemblages along with sediment and ice cores reveal relatively stable environmental conditions during the past 6000 years—coincident with the global proliferation of calendars and written languages throughout our civilization. Over the past millennium, ice cores further document atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations markedly increasing along with human populations throughout the world during the past two centuries (Fig. II). Pesticides in Antarctic snow and species as well as the seasonal creation of the ''ozone hole'' over Antarctica further demonstrate the global reach of human impacts during the late 20th century. Together, these records from Antarctica and elsewhere underscore the dynamics of the Earth system which connects humankind on a global scale (Chapter 8: Breathing Planet and Chapter 9: Living Planet).
Antarctica also reveals basic human nature in utilizing resources in the Earth system—biggest and easiest with largest economic potential first. In the late 1700s, fur seals were captured along accessible Antarctic coastlines. As populations were depleted new seal rookeries were identified. After these Antarctic marine living resources had been exhausted, baleen whales were next. One species after another was diminished as new technologies, such as the explosive harpoon, moved them toward the limit of extinction. This wake of declining marine populations now is evident among smaller living resources, particularly Antarctic fish. The challenge is learning from past activities to prevent overexploitation of resources, such as krill, that have global value for ''all of mankind'' (Chapter 10: Ecosystem Conservation).
At all levels, from local communities to the entire planet, understanding Earth system phenomena involves science (Fig. III). Science is conducted for basic purposes because nature is inherently interesting and because humans are innately curious (Fig. IV). Science also is conducted for applied purposes to identify resources and develop technologies (Fig. V). Broadly, science has been central in the development of our civilization.
Across generations, science has stimulated continuity in our world by building on an ever expanding base of knowledge. However, beyond understanding the Earth system or even human tendencies, it is the ''common ground'' feature of science that is most important in our society—providing an objective framework for dialogue among diverse stakeholders. Such dialogue becomes essential in the international arena, where national security interests can escalate into isolation and confrontation. In this context, Antarctica is a unique example in the history of our civilization, where science continuously has fostered cooperation among nations with diverse cultural, economic, and political orientations (Chapter 5: Global Stewardship).
emerging common interests
Picture a grass pasture where different herders are grazing their sheep. There is plenty of grass, but there are more sheep than the pasture can support at once. Together, the group of herders could rotate their use of the common pasture over time and space so that all sheep could feed sufficiently on a continuous basis. Conversely, an individual herder could let his or her sheep graze maximally, ignoring cooperative interests at the expense of the grass pasture as well—a situation classically known as the ''tragedy of the commons.'' What should the individual herder do?
This classic dilemma applies broadly to living and nonliving resources that are used collectively by different stakeholders in communities and nations across the Earth. Moreover, when resources are in limited supply, dominant competitors are favored to the exclusion of all others. These resource issues we face as a civilization parallel those of any other species—complete competitors cannot coexist (Chapter 9: Living Planet).
Beyond direct resource utilization, human productivity also has indirect consequences through habitat pollution and modification. Fortunately, by the end of the second millennium in the ''common era,'' nations began reaching across borders to reduce their impacts in the Earth system. In fact, from the vantage of the future, historians will be able to look back on the 20th century and demonstrate substantial contributions from simply recognizing that human development can impact species and their environments beyond national jurisdictions (Table 12.1). Moreover, the emergence of international agreements for ecosystem and environmental protection clearly shows the growing need among nations to resolve common issues cooperatively (Fig. 12.1).
Convention or treaty
Was this article helpful?