Science

Mystery continent holds key to mankind’s future

A church is lit in the town of Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island,Antarctica. According to scientists, clues to answering humanity’s most basic questions are locked in this continental freezer.  

Earth’s past, present and future come together here on the northern peninsula of Antarctica, the wildest, most desolate and mysterious of its continents.

Clues to answering humanity’s most basic questions are locked in this continental freezer the size of the United States and half of Canada: where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What’s the fate of our warming planet? “It’s a window out to the universe and in time,” said Kelly Falkner, polar program chief for the U.S. National Science Foundation.

For a dozen days in January, in the middle of the chilly Antarctic summer, AP followed scientists from different fields searching for alien-like creatures, hints of pollution trapped in pristine ancient ice, leftovers from the Big Bang, biological quirks that potentially could lead to better medical treatments, and perhaps most of all, signs of unstoppable melting. Antarctica conjures up images of quiet mountains and white plateaus, but the coldest, driest and remotest continent is far from dormant.

About 98 per cent of it is covered by ice, and that ice is constantly moving. Temperatures can range from above zero in the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula to the unbearable frozen lands near the South Pole. As an active volcano, Deception Island is a pot of extreme conditions. There are spots where the sea boils at 100 degrees Celsius, while in others it can be freezing at below0 degrees Celsius. And while the sun rarely shines on the long, dark Antarctic winters, night-time never seems to fall on summer days.

While tourists come to Antarctica for its beauty and remoteness, scientists are all business. What they find could affect the lives of people thousands of miles away; if experts are right, and the West Antarctic ice sheet has started melting irreversibly, what happens here will determine if cities such as Miami, New York, New Orleans, Guangzhou, Mumbai, London and Osaka will have to regularly battle flooding from rising seas.

Antarctica “is big and it’s changing and it affects the rest of the planet and we can’t afford to ignore what’s going on down there,” said David Vaughan, science director of the British Antarctic.

About 4,000 scientists come to Antarctica for research during the summer and 1,000 stay in the more forbidding winter. There are also about 1,000 non-scientists — chefs, divers, mechanics, janitors and the priest of the world’s southernmost Eastern Orthodox Church on top of a rocky hill at the Russian Bellinghausen station. But the church on the hill is an exception, a glimmer of the world to the north. For scientists, what makes this place is the world below, which provides a window into mankind’s past and future.


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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 2:07:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/mystery-continent-holds-key-to-mankinds-future/article6920174.ece

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