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Approximately three-quarters of a mile below the surface of the Bellingshausen Sea, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, lives a crab—1.5 million of them, actually. Scientists describe the crab as a lithodid, of the family lithodidae; a king crab, for short. From leg to leg, the king crab is almost one foot wide. Its body is encased in a spiny shell that wards off most predators that troll the Antarctic seabed. The king crab is itself a predator; its firm pincers allow it to pierce the shells of the starfish and sea pigs on which it feeds.

Recently, the king crab's predatory range has expanded well beyond its longstanding deep-sea habitat. King-crab larvae are sensitive to subtle fluctuations in the temperature of their surrounding environment, and the lives of their colonies are constantly striving for more hospitable territory. To adapt, these colonies have begun the slow, multi-generational climb to the Antarctic shelf that abuts the warming waters of the broader Southern Ocean. There, they encounter new prey, whose lives and livelihoods are interrupted or, at worst, devastated by the shelf's new residents. The transformation of the Antarctic environment increasingly reverberates up the continent’s food chain, from Antarctic zooplankton through the killer whale.

The re-settlement of the king crab is only one example of the cataclysmic, if gradual transformation of Antarctica and its ecosystems. As elsewhere, the story of Antarctica is at once the story of the king crab, an unexceptional family of interdependent organisms, and of the larger world that the crab inhabits. Warming marine habitats, glacial erosion, and ecosystemic collapse, among the continent's gravest challenges, are each component parts of the Antarctic experience of ecological change. The early human explorers that, from the late 19th century forward, traversed the continent often reported a "last wilderness"—an open, untroubled barrier between a bountiful nature and the ugly, decadent features of industrial civilization. The devastation of climate change, however, has a way of exceeding that imagined artifice between the natural world and the human impact of the Anthropocene. Today, Antarctica is the world's most vigorously protected wilderness. But the human antecedents of global climate change laid the ground for the slow death of this last wilderness long before and far beyond these impressive efforts hoping to restore it.


European maps of Antarctica published in the early years of the so-called era of exploration display a continent almost as wide as the world's equatorial diameter, more likely marked by mythical sea creatures than by recognizable features of human society. The subsequent half-millennium of scientific, commercial, and imperial voyages—around Cape Horn, across the Antarctic Circle, and ever-nearer to the Earth’s southern pole—dispatched the sea-creature pantheon, but the mysterious quality of the continent and its ecosystem endured.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when improvements in the technology and techniques of polar travel allowed for new pathways in Antarctic exploration, a mild naturalism began to appear in many of the explorers' accounts of the icy landscape. In 1928, Richard Evelyn Byrd, whose crew organized among the first flights across the South Pole, set up camp at “Little America,” along eastern Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. In his account of the expedition, Byrd described a sensation of “[o]verwhelming solitude and a terrible stillness” that “brooded over that immobile, frozen scene.” From that lonely perch, the radio towers of Little America mimicked the “spidery derricks in an oil field," like the ones erected back home by John D. Rockefeller, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors. Three centuries of exploration and commercial exploitation in and above the Southern Ocean had placed Antarctic navigators in close contact with its wilderness. For Byrd and his contemporaries, the far-flung consequences of those activities had come closer into focus.

The story of Antarctica is at once the story of the king crab, an unexceptional family of interdependent organisms, and of the larger world that the crab inhabits.

The ecological dilemmas of the Antarctic wilderness have their origins in the late 19th century growth of a committed politics of environmental conservation. Though major threads of early post-Enlightenment political and social thought drew attention to the fragility and moral burden of the scenic wilderness, those ideas did not coalesce into a successful political project for another half-century. Historians cite the creation, in 1872, of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first wilderness preserve operated by a national government, as a catalyst for this global era of insurgent environmentalism. The decades between the establishment of Yellowstone National Park and the 1916 creation of the U.S. National Park Service saw an ambitious groundswell of new wilderness protections across the U.S. and abroad, much of it helped along by the imperial expansion of the U.S. government and its European counterparts. Parks in the Western United States that had been governed by state park systems, like California's Yosemite, became the property of a U.S. federal regime of increasing scope and scale. Subsequent wilderness preservation efforts in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Belgian territories of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo were as much acts of political mimicry as of principled environmentalism.

This global expansion of wild spaces set the stage for the creation of a dedicated Antarctic wilderness in the years following the global devastation of the Second World War. A post-war community of scientific researchers imagined the Antarctic wilderness as an uncommon site of international collaboration and empirical exploration. Participants in the International Geophysical Year, from 1957 to 1958, described its Antarctic portion as a new frontier in collaborative discovery. Scientists across disciplines joined the IGY program: botanists, zoologists, oceanographers, glaciologists. In a small twist of irony, strategic jockeying between U.S. and Soviet scientific research programs offered these scientists a modest opportunity—and significant fund—to chip away at the divisive spirit of Cold War politics. In a 1954 memo to presidential adviser Sherman Adams, National Academy of Sciences President Detlev Bronk described the humanitarian inspiration at the heart of the IGY initiative: “I believe that the essential feature [of the IGY] is the aspect of international cooperation in science. Moreover, the topics involved are close to the daily lives of all of us.”

Penguins in the Antarctic. (Photo: Antarctica Bound/Flickr)

Penguins in the Antarctic. (Photo: Antarctica Bound/Flickr)

The continuous observation of those topics would require at least partial distance from the destruction of the Cold War and its satellite conflicts. In 1959, the country participants in the IGY and subsequent projects signed the Antarctic Treaty, creating, among other protocols, a demilitarized zone throughout the continent. The demilitarized zone, like much of the Treaty, is often described by international legal scholars as a “gentleman’s agreement” that relies on the compliance of its individual members, rather than on an international enforcement authority. The zone would serve as a haven from excessive fishing, hunting, and mineral extraction, among the most destructive consequences of human affairs.

But the subsequent arrival of Antarctica research teams has sometimes infringed on the wilderness the Treaty intends to preserve. The treaty's initial conservation protocols provided few explicit protections for the Antarctic ecosystem and its inhabitants. "Not only could you go down among the penguins," says Claire Parkinson, a NASA climate scientist who has conducted research on the continent and its surrounding region since the early 1970s, in reference to the penguin colonies that dot the continent's glacial coast. "But you could even pick them up." Only later, as tourists and researchers descended on Antarctica in greater and greater droves, did the Treaty begin to govern interactions with the continent's flora and fauna. The early Treaty and its protocols allowed the research of Parkinson and her fellow researchers, but scarcely governed it.*

As the Antarctic experience shows, human error (sometimes human malice) is often the greatest threat to wilderness.

But in the late 1970s, the continent's human inhabitants were few, and their footprint relatively light. Four decades later, that footprint has kept pace with the rapid growth of Antarctic research and, more consequentially, tourism. Penguin colonies are no longer as vulnerable to the idle curiosities of the continent's visitors as they once were, but human activities now transform Antarctic ecosystems in new ways. A small industry has emerged to support the livelihoods of researchers and tourists, both on Antarctica and in the transit hubs that facilitate their travel to the continent by air and by sea.


Recent accounts of this industry, such as the late Nicholas Johnson's Big Dead Place, revel in the peculiar comforts of human civilization that make their way into Antarctica’s research centers, dormitories, and cafeterias. Johnson describes a minor kerfuffle between a representative of the National Science Foundation, which oversees and regulates the activities of the continent’s American residents, and the patrons of Southern Exposure, one of a few bars located at the American McMurdo Station, on the eastern Ross Island. By Johnson’s account, Southern Exposure is probably the world’s diviest dive bar: On summer mornings, night-shift workers gather in its near-pitch-dark cave to avoid the constant glare of an ever-present Antarctic sun. “Often the only source of light is the glow from the screen on the cash register and the periodic flame of a cigarette lighter,” Johnson writes. Until the NSF representative intervened, that is, forcing the Southern’s staff to illuminate its smoky barroom.

The Antarctic Treaty System, the continent’s overarching treaty organization, governs much more of the continent’s human activity than just the visibility levels of a local dive bar. The ATS and its agents quietly mediate between a vulnerable wilderness, and the activities of the humans tasked with observing it. It also monitors the food Antarctic visitors eat, their modes of transport to and across the continent, and their interactions with the flora and fauna they encounter beyond their field camps and research facilities. Johnson sardonically describes ATS governance as a pathetic totalitarianism, as notable for its failures as for the meticulous protocols to which it aspires. These failures are common and often accidental. In one scene in a McMurdo cafeteria, Johnson describes the rapt astonishment that followed the discovery of a snail in a leafy green salad. "There are not supposed to be snails in Antarctica; it had hitched a lift in a box of leafy vegetables," he explains. Like much of the most destructive human activity on the continent, the consequences of these small regulatory failures are unintentional. But, as the Antarctic experience shows, human error (sometimes human malice) is often the greatest threat to wilderness.

The eventual consequences of Antarctica's collapse—gravest among them, a rising sea—will be global in scope.

The novel existence of Antarctic civilization is only the faintest mark of the continent's threatened wilderness. In a Nature Geoscience paper published in March, an international group of Earth scientists identified a widening cavity more than a half-kilometer beneath the Totten Glacier, among the largest marine-based glaciers that make up Antarctica’s eastern province. The cavity will open the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to the corrosive undercurrent of the Southern Ocean, hastening the slow continental collapse already set in motion by West Antarctica's melting glaciers. Much of eastern Antarctica sits above sea level, atop a large mass of bedrock that, until recently, has insulated the province from the ocean's lapping tides. The bedrock below West Antarctica's frozen surface, by contrast, is mostly underwater. When Antarctica's ice melts, its dismantled fragments will submerge beneath the same warming waters that now destroy it. The eventual consequences of Antarctica's collapse—gravest among them, a rising sea—will be global in scope.

The world's most resilient spaces are those that adapt to the experience of near devastation, prompting new, unprecedented forms of plant life and the settlement of ever-larger groups of micro- and macroscopic fauna. Marine invertebrate species thrive on the promise of the near freezing waters that brush up against the Antarctic continent. As those waters warm, they displace not only these essential species, but also the wildlife they nourish and sustain. The transformation of these small ecosystems are a quiet groan amid the deafening collapse of a fractured continent; the reverberations of a starfish corpse slipping into the Southern Ocean appear less consequential than those that follow a submerged glacier. And they are. But for the Antarctic tern that picks starfish from the Ocean's pelagic ecosystem, the slow collapse of the invertebrate colonies is an existential event.

The dismal future of global wilderness is no excuse for misanthropic nihilism, nor for the wholesale abandonment of protected spaces. Facing the continent’s slow decay, scientists that conduct research on Antarctica have begun to agitate for better conservation in still-protected spaces like the “last wild ocean” on Antarctica, near the Ross Sea. “It’s more than just the aesthetics of Antarctica that matter,” says James McClintock, professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “There is a dense population of organisms there that has ancient precedents.”

Conservation is not simply an act of ecological cryogenics, a last-ditch effort to shelter nature's sacred havens from the unknown burdens of a future era. Instead, the conservationist project is an acknowledgment of the disproportionate ecological costs of human action, both for spaces directly shaped by the industrial scale of contemporary society, and for those on their farthest margins. Ecosystems at those margins, like the last wilds of the Antarctic continent, stand as much to gain from the preservation of America's parks as do the protected forests and beaches themselves. The wide-ranging effects of climate change for shrinking wilderness like Antarctica reveal a new, global ethics of wilderness preservation. Like the motivating thrust of the Antarctic Treaty, this ethical vision of human activity envisions a public responsibility not only to Antarctica and its protected counterparts, but to the world.


Lead photo: Boat ride approaching Antarctica. (Photo: Yongyut Kumsri/Shutterstock)

*UPDATE — June 03, 2015This article has been edited to clarify the design and implementation of the Antarctic Treaty's early conservation protocols.