Hands off Antarctica!

Dossier ~ Tuesday 24th February 2009
Dessin réalisé à l'occasion de l'expédition antarctique belge (1957-1958)]

The Belgian polar base Princess Elisabeth (name of the future queen of Belgium) was inaugurated on 15 February 2009 at the heart of Antarctica. Considered to be the most ecological scientific station ever built in the region, it has drawn the attention of the whole world to the absolute need of preserving the Antarctic against all kinds of pollution.

The most ecological polar base

The Princess Elisabeth polar research station is considered the most ecological structure ever built at the South Pole. Johan Berte, the head of the project, explained: "We have reached a historic point in time. This base will be the first to operate entirely by means of wind and solar power. It will have very low energy requirements, the lowest ever seen here, and will emit very little carbon." The polar expert Alain Hubert, the glaciologist Hugo Decleir, and the climatologist André Berger started the project in 2002, through their International Polar Foundation. For these three idealists, it was a matter of relaunching research into the Antarctic, a Belgian speciality that has been forgotten since 1967, the year in which the research station Roi Baudouin, which had been in existence since 1957, closed its doors. This is a good time for us to revisit the history of scientific research in the Antarctic.

Observers of the poles

We need to go back to 1773 to find the first mention of what was termed the "conquest of the poles". These days it is more usual to speak of "observing the poles", because of the wish to preserve this part of the planet that is so important to the survival of life on earth. The Englishman James Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic polar circle in 1773. But in 1820 the Russian captain Fabian von Bellingshausen went further: he saw the Antarctic landmass and christened the first island he encountered here "Alexander Land'" (in honour of the Russian Tsar Alexander I). Yet it was not until 1840 that a precise description of the Antarctic continent's contours was made by the Englishman James Clark Ross, the Frenchman Sébastien Dumont d'Urville and the American Charles Wilkes, who had set out to find the South Magnetic Pole.

Adrien de Gerlache: 375 days on the ice

In spite of the curiosity of the first explorers, enthusiasm for the South Pole soon cooled. There were no visitors of note to the Antarctic between 1841 and 1895. The sixth Geographical Congress, organised in London in 1895, revived interest in the South Pole, the only continent yet to give up its secrets. With the backing of Leopold II, nineteenth-century Belgium became a major player in the exploration of the continents. In 1897 Leopold II encouraged Adrien de Gerlache to lead an expedition to Antarctica, on board the ship Belgica. This was still an age of pioneers. The Belgica remained trapped in the ice for 375 days. It was only in September 1898 (at the end of the southern winter) that the pack ice started to melt around the Belgica. The first true scientific expedition to this inhospitable region ended in February 1899.

The race to the Antarctic

Apart from the Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott's British expedition (1911), one must also mention the massive presence of the United States with its so-called "Operation Highjump" in 1946-1947. Admiral Byrd brought along 13 ships, 23 aeroplanes and 4700 crew, scientists, photographers and other professionals, who were entrusted with the task of exploring the skies above and the surface of the Antarctic. This was the first time that the continent was photographed on a large scale. This massive American presence was not accidental. The two political and military superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union (including what we today call Russia), were involved in a struggle to impose their influence across the globe. Unfortunately, Antarctica was viewed as a strategic area.

1957  -  the key year

In the end reason prevailed over military grandiosity. The year 1957 was declared "International Geophysical Year". This involved finalising a complete map of the world and designating protected areas. The research and findings of the International Geophysical Year ended in 1959 with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in Washington, which banned all military activity in the Antarctic. Twelve countries signed the treaty, which came into effect on 23 June 1961. In 1991, the Madrid Protocol expanded the Treaty of 1959, banning all prospecting for or extraction of mineral or fossil resources, such as oil. The Treaty of Washington is still problematic insofar as it can be reviewed and amended like any other treaty, and so vigilance is essential in the face of economic greed. In April 2009 we will look again at the 50 years that have passed since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in Washington, in the company of a descendant of Adrien de Gerlache.

Tintin and the mystery of the poles

Hergé certainly never sent his reporter Tintin to the heart of Antarctica. Tintinologists will know that at one time Hergé was considering illustrating a story created in cooperation with Michel Greg (the creator of Achille Talon), known as Tintin and the Thermozéro. What we do know about this stillborn tale has nothing to do with the Antarctic. Nevertheless, in Prisoners of the Sun, as they search for Tintin and his friends who are being held captive by the Incas, the Thom(p)son twins' pendulum accidentally sends them towards the Antarctic (we note the presence of penguins, which do not exist at the North Pole!), while they look for our heroes in "a cool place".Even if the action is set in northern Europe, The Shooting Star echoes the race of great powers to control the smallest bit of unclaimed land. In 1957, Hergé honoured the departure of the Belgian Antarctic expedition with a memorable greetings card.

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