The Arctic is the area North of 66 degrees latitude – The Arctic Circle. Home to Santa, Mrs Claus and their stunted helpers (not scientifically confirmed yet!). It’s mostly made up of the Arctic Ocean surrounded by northern Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. There is no landmass at the North Pole.
The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line that marks the latitude above which the sun does not set on the summer solstice (21st June) and does not rise on the winter solstice (21st December). North of this latitude, continuous day or night last around six months at the North Pole. The reverse is true of the South Pole in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the 5th largest of the seven continents. It is mostly South of The Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees latitude and covers the South Pole. Antarctica is roughly twice the size of Australia in summer. In the dark of winter the ocean around Antarctica freezes and doubles it’s size.
What are The Arctic and Antarctica?
The Arctic and Antarctica are the last two great frontiers on the surface of our planet. They hold a place in our minds as other-worldly, hostile, beautiful and alluring places that may provide great riches for those who can unlock their secrets. The ancient Greeks predicted that Antarctica must exist to act as a counter balance to the lands in the Northern Hemisphere. Traders and explorers tried for centuries to find the fabled ‘North West Passage’ through the Arctic Ocean to link the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Both places are almost pristine wilderness and their isolation and freezing temperatures has largely kept humans out. This is changing.
How do greenhouse gases effect The Arctic and Antarctica?
The greenhouse gases currently warming our atmosphere and oceans impact greatly on The Arctic. As the Arctic Ocean warms the ice become thinner and covers less area. Sunlight that would normally be reflected back into space (by the snow and ice) is now absorbed by the dark ocean, warming the ocean and melting more ice. Increased temperatures in The Southern Ocean are causing ice-sheets to break up and fall into the ocean. The interior of East Antarctica is showing some gains in land ice, overall Antarctica is losing land ice at an increasing rate. Antarctic sea ice is growing despite a strongly warming Southern Ocean. How could this be happening?
How do The Arctic and Antarctica help us?
The Arctic and Antarctica are the air-conditioners for our planet. They take the hot air from the Tropics, cool it and send it back to the Tropics again. An increase of 0.5 degree in average temperature at the Equator would mean an increase of as much as 4-6 degrees at the poles. The redistribution of heat from the equator to the poles has been following the same pattern for 10,000 years – since civilization began. Changing these patterns by changing our climate will have real impacts on our economy, people, crops, water supplies and pretty much everything we do.
Is Australia doing a good job protecting The Arctic and Antarctica?
The reality is that short of halting the international growth of greenhouse gas pollution Australia can’t do much to protect The Arctic. In an ironic twist Canada, Russia and the USA are already laying claim to drill for more oil in the recently unfrozen parts of the Arctic Ocean. The Russians have gone to the trouble of planting their flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole. Australia lays claim to around 40% (the largest claim) of Antarctica made in 1933. While Australia has three bases on our claim the Russians also have three, the Chinese one, Romania one and there is another ‘European’ base. Australia is signatory to the Antarctic Treaty that has established a legal framework for the continent’s management, setting it aside as, ‘A natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.’
What can we do?
Australia is a signatory to a Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. This bans oil and mineral exploration until 2041, when this expires it could potentially be modified or amended. How might you influence the extension of this treaty? The Sea Shepard conservation organization sends ships down to Antarctica every summer to block the Japanese whaling boats from killing whales. Why do you think this action has been controversial? How else would you protect the whales of the Southern Ocean?