December 1 is Antarctica Day, a day to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, eat ice cream, and generally turn our attention south. This year I am taking that sentiment further than most, heading back to the frozen continent on board a cruise ship to lecture on the very treaty that Antarctica Day marks. Being someone who can’t stand the cold, it seems unnatural that I would opt to spend my summer in a place famed for its chilly climate. Antarctica is worth making exceptions for.
Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, most penguin-friendly continent on earth. It is also particularly interesting from a political angle. The continent itself is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a complex maze of annexes and adopted conventions that govern everything from the catch limits for fish in the Southern Ocean through to the environmental monitoring that must be undertaken before establishing a research station. Meetings are held once a year, and all decisions are made by consensus. 12 nations – including New Zealand – were the original signatories back in 1959, but these days there are over 50 nations signed up to the Antarctic Treaty. That treaty has many purposes, but most importantly, it designates Antarctica as a place for peace and science. Military activity is not allowed, and science is the focus on the continent.
What does all this mean for us in Canterbury? Well, the big grey C-17 plane that spends the summer commuting between the Ross Ice Shelf and Christchurch International Airport whilst full of scientists in orange and red parkas is one local link. Antarctica Day is also a good chance to take a moment to remember just where those bitterly cold southerly winds that can assail our shores have their origins.
Our ship visits the other side of Antarctica: the peninsula region is located directly south of the tip of South America. Still, the same weather rules apply: take Auckland’s five seasons in one day, push them into a giant freezer, and you’ll get the idea. It’s in the midst of that weather that I will be celebrating both Antarctica Day and Thanksgiving; with a number of US nationals on board, the American holiday can’t be missed. In the spirit of both, I’m thankful to be back showing visitors around this amazing frozen continent, and I’m doubly thankful to have such a supportive family back home who encourage me to go literally to the ends of the world and back.
Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian