Madrid, 20 January 2003
The Antarctic is the most remote, coldest, most wind-swept and highest of all the earth’s continents. The largest ice cluster on the planet is located there, and its role, like that of its surrounding ocean, is essential in many natural processes that occur on a global scale. Its geographical location and environmental conditions offer extraordinary possibilities for scientific research and for gaining an understanding of our planet’s past, present and future. The history of its conquest contains chapters of epic proportions. Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, among others, did not hesitate to risk their lives on dramatic expeditions in order to conquer the last remaining virgin space on the planet. At present, its jurisdictional status under the Antarctic Treaty is one of shared sovereignty, whereby it is established as an area for peace and science. Its 14,200,000 square kilometres of surface area are inhabited by nearly 4,000 scientists in summer and barely 1,000 in winter that, within a context of close international cooperation and at average temperature of -55ºC, strive to discover the secrets bound up in the ice, rocks, oceans and atmosphere of the frozen continent. CosmoCaixa, ”la Caixa” Foundation’s science museum in Madrid, inaugurates the temporary exhibition entitled Antarctica on January 21st, which will offer an overview of this expanse that is at once a no-man’s-land and the patrimony of all, in a journey to the most inhospitable and fascinating place on the planet.
The Antarctic Continent
Fourteen million square kilometres and five south poles!: the geographical pole, where all of the terrestrial meridians converge; the magnetic pole, where all of the planet’s magnetic fields come together; the geomagnetic pole, where magnetic fields would converge if the planet were a homogeneous magnet; the pole of inaccessibility or the centre of the continent, the point farthest away from any coastline; and the ceremonial south pole, where Norwegian and British flags were planted at the beginning of last century, and what was then the geographical south pole. All of the world’s time zones converge at this point.
The exhibition includes a model of Antarctica rendered at a scale of 1:2,000,000 and measuring four metres in diameter that reproduces the most important geographical features, the relief, the expedition routes, the distribution of biodiversity, the five south poles and the thickness of the ice at each part of the frozen continent.
Antarctica is synonymous with cold. Its average yearly temperature is -55ºC, but the record low has been recorded at -89.6ºC. Its geographical location at the Pole, its height, the absence of a protective atmospheric layer and its permanent covering of ice that reflects 80% of the sun’s rays explain these temperatures. Yet the Antarctic was not always glacial. In the Mesozoic epoch, when dinosaurs inhabited the temperate and warm areas of the earth, the Antarctic continent, located much farther to the north, was the home of numerous animal species dinosaurs included and forms of plant life.
Paradoxically, the continent’s inland area is the driest place on earth! The cold freezes the water vapour, removing it from the air. Yearly precipitation amounts to only 50 millimetres per square metre. It rains less than in the Sahara Desert, yet Antarctica contains the largest reserve of drinking water in the world.
The seasons at the poles, due to the earth’s inclination, consist of six months of daylight and six months of darkness. From April to September, the greater part of the Antarctic is shroud in darkness, night is perpetual. A darkness that is only interrupted by the colours of the aurora australis.
An impressive scientific audiovisual display, which combines real images of Antarctic landscapes with other computer-generated ones, describing the aurora australis, katabatic winds (the strongest on the planet) and all of the astronomic and geographic factors that determine Antarctica’s climate, illustrates the meteorological peculiarities unique to these latitudes.
Despite its temperature, the Antarctic Ocean is one of the most abundant in biodiversity. At the bottom of its food chain are krill, Euphasia superba, a small shrimplike crustacean that serves as food for whales, seals, fish and marine birds.
The only land animals of Antarctica are invertebrate, with nearly all being arthropods. The largest is a type of wingless mosquito that can measure up to one centimetre in size. Penguins, birds and marine seals depend on the sea in order to survive.
Although there is not a single tree to be found, numerous species of lichens and mosses have adapted to the extreme conditions of Antarctica.
At CosmoCaixa, naturalised starfish, sea urchins, isopods, sea spiders, ascidians, anemones and fish, along with reproductions of the different species of penguins (Emperor, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni, etc.), seals, sea elephants, cormorants and sea dogs that inhabit the frozen continent, reflect the richness of Antarctic biodiversity.
The Conquest of the South Pole
The discovery of Antarctica stands as one of mankind’s last great emotionally-charged adventures. The history of its conquest has been written by three standout figures: Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen.
Condensed into the life of the English explorer Scott is all of the epic struggle that surrounded the conquest of the Antarctic. Capitan in the Royal Navy, in 1901, at the age of 32, he set off at the head of the British expedition Discovery. The members of the expedition were so close to starvation that they had no choice but to eat the fourteen dogs that they brought with them. When they were 410 miles (875 kilometres) away from the South Pole, their rations and strength gave out and they were forced to turn back without reaching their goal.
Sir Ernest Shackleton, a junior officer in Scott’s first expedition, captained another endeavour between 1907 and 1909 (Nimrod) that failed when it was just 97 miles (179 kilometres) from the Pole.
A year later, in 1910, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Scott engaged in a frenzied race to fly their flags at the Pole with two new expeditions, baptised as Fram and Terra Nova respectively. Scott was the first to get underway, with a head start of two months, taking thirty-three dogs, three motorised sleds and nineteen ponies. Amundsen used hardly any dogs or sleds, and the few men with him were all very well prepared. On 15 December 1911, Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag at the Pole, where he left his tent, some equipment and a message for Scott. On 17 January 1912, just thirty three days later, Scott, who was unaware of the success of the Scandinavian expedition, experienced the deception of seeing his rival’s flag flapping in the wind. Amundsen had left him the following message:
“Dear Commander Scott: As you will probably be the first to reach this area after us, I will kindly ask you to forward the attached letter to King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent please do not hesitate to do so. With kind regards, I wish you a safe return. Yours truly, Roald Amundsen”.
The nightmare was not over. On the return trip, just 18 kilometres away from a cache of supplies, Scott and the four remaining members of his expedition froze to death inside of their tent.
The Antarctica exhibition at CosmoCaixa offers a look at the epic history of the conquest of the continent through, among other objects, the plans of the Discovery, the campaign of the Nimrod, the legendary boots with which Amundsen first stepped onto Antarctic soil, Shackleton’s balaclava, and a reproduction of the actual state of the inside of the refuge at Cape Evans from where Scott set off when he reached the South Pole.
Current Research in Antarctica
Since the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, its twelve members have expanded to forty-five. The Treaty was to remain in force for thirty years, at the end of which time it would have to be revised. On 3 October 1991 in Madrid, the twenty-six consultative nations approved the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection, in which the Antarctic is defined as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.
Spain has had a presence in Antarctica since 1988, a year in which, in addition to becoming a consultative member of the Treaty, the Juan Carlos I base was installed on Livingston Island. A second base named after Gabriel de Castilla would later be set up on Deception Island. The Antarctica exhibition at CosmoCaixa reproduces the biology laboratory at the Juan Carlos I base and conserves a testimonial piece of ice from Vostok Lake, considered a model for engaging in the search for life in the oceans on Jupiter’s moons. Added to this is an audiovisual display that brings together the testimonies of those who have worked in Antarctica the human side of research based on accounts like the one by Dr. Jerri Nielsen.
Over the course of these forty-three years of scientific research on the frozen continent, important discoveries have been made in relation to the hole in the ozone layer, climatic change, atmospheric pollution, life at low temperatures and meteorites, as featured at the exhibition.
The Antarctic is an immense laboratory with unique conditions for research which was honoured in 2002 with the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation.
Temporary exhibition: “Antarctica”
Inauguration: 21 January 2003
Location: CosmoCaixa science museum. Pintor Velázquez s/n. 28100 Alcobendas. Madrid.
Information: 91 484 52 00