Reclaiming Antarctica's Frozen Heritage
By Marcela Valente
Experts are restoring cabins, shelters and science stations used by intrepid explorers on the white continent dating back to the 19th century.
BUENOS AIRES, (Tierramérica).- A handful of scientists from various countries have been working for the past few decades to find, rebuild and maintain the historic monuments of Antarctica, turning up fishing settlements, expedition bases and research stations over a hundred years old.
The aim is to restore parts of human history in Antarctic territory, recovering them from the ice that covers everything.
In force since 1961, the Antarctic Treaty recommended at its first meeting to protect the historic sites from damage by the weather and by human activities. Shortly thereafter, a list of 73 locations was drawn up, all part of Antarctica's heritage.
Every Southern Hemisphere summer, Ricardo Capdevila, head of the Argentine Antarctic Institute's Museum and History Department, travels to Antarctica with a team of experts to locate and restore those sites and to maintain the already-designated historic monuments.
This year, which is the first centenary of the expedition led by Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjold, Capdevila and his team restored the wooden cabin built by the scientists a hundred years ago on Snow Hill Island. The structure had filled with ice, which contributed to keeping it erect after years of freezing temperatures and strong winds.
"First we cleared away the ice, and then we made a steel belt to hold it in its original shape. It was a very strong structure because while we were camped there, winds reached 270 km per hour, and the cabin withstood it perfectly," Capdevila told Tierramérica.
Nordenskjold set sail form the Swedish port of Goteborg in October 1901 aboard the ship 'Antarctic'. In February 1902, with five crewmen -- including Argentine second lieutenant Jorge Sobral -- he disembarked on Snow Hill Island, near the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. There, they set up base to spend the winter and remain until December, when the 'Antarctic' was to come for them.
But the ship never arrived. After becoming trapped in ice, it sank in February 1903 to the east of Paulet Island.
The expedition team was rescued in November by the Argentine corvette 'Uruguay', which a few days later recovered the shipwrecked crew of the 'Antarctic', who sought refuge in a stone house on Paulet Island, another monument being reconstructed.
Capdevila is currently working on salvaging the Moneta house, Argentina's first permanent scientific station in Antarctica, established in 1903 in the South Orkney Islands. Originally, it was the expedition camp of Scottish explorer William Bruce, but was later handed over to Argentine José Moneta to set up a weather station.
Moneta later wrote "Four Years in the South Orkneys". The restoration experts hope to inaugurate the site for visits by the public next year, the hundredth anniversary of an Argentine presence in an area where temperatures can hover at 30 degrees below zero Celsius.
Argentina is not the only country following the historic restoration mission. Australia, Britain, Chile, New Zealand, Spain and the United States have programs aimed at keeping alive the human history of the 14-million-square-km continent that is almost totally covered in ice.
Jorge Berguño, assistant director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, told Tierramérica that the remains have been found of a sea lion hunt dating to 1820. Over-hunting caused the near extinction of the fur seal, which was highly prized at the time by the British and North Americans. The hunters left behind objects, stone walls and shipwrecks in Antarctica.
Later, whaling expeditions emerged, as evidenced by the remnants of a station on Deception, one of the South Shetland Islands, where seven countries are working to create a shared administrative and preservation zone.
On Livingston Island, also in the Shetland archipelago, a human femur and skull were found, and determined to belong to an indigenous woman of Argentine Patagonia. "Historians believe the Indians were taken on the whaling ships to do the dirty work of killing," says Berguño.
Then came the heroic era of 20th century exploration. Their tales are true adventure stories. At least a dozen expeditions were landmark efforts, due to the knowledge of the territory they contributed or to the challenges that the explorers had to face.
On the coast of Antarctica's Ross Sea, Australian experts are working on restoring the house of Robert Falcon Scott, the Briton who tried in 1901 and 1911 to reach the South Pole. He achieved his goal in January 1912, in his second attempt, but he never made it back. He died, frozen and without food, alongside some of his team members.
In the same area, there is a site that is related to Norway's Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole, a month ahead of Scott.
Berguño recounts the ups and downs of another adventurer, Ernst Shackleton --who led an expedition in 1916 -- in his book "The 22 Lives of Shackleton".
"The ship was trapped in the Weddell Sea, and after 10 months of waiting for the thaw, the hull cracked. The expedition members moved on an ice floe to Elephant Island, which is rocky and inaccessible, and they knew that there was no possibility of being rescued there," said Berguño.
Shackleton set out alone in a boat to the South Georgia and Falkland/Malvinas islands in search of help. After three failed attempts, a Chilean ship rescued his team. They had spent more than six months with only small boats as shelter.
In Berguño's opinion, the effort to reconstruct and maintain the continent's heritage has taken on greater importance with the growing interest of adventure tourists to experience "the last frontier".
During the 2000-2001 Southern Hemisphere summer, more than 13,000 visitors set out from the southern Argentine port of Ushuaia, ready and willing to sail more than a thousand kilometers to the Antarctic Peninsula.
"Unfortunately, every tourist is a collector. They are destroying the world's historic wealth," said Berguño. But he clarified that this should not mean limiting the number of tourists, but raising their awareness about preservation.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.