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Beyond this flood a frozen continent; Lies dark and wilde, beat with perpetual storms; Of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land; Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems; Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice... --Paradise Lost, John Milton (1608-1675)
For well over 60 million years Antarctica was indeed a 'lost paradise'. Lost at the end of the earth and witness only to swirling snows that started to accumulate there 15 million years ago, this distant and isolated continent developed alone, while the rest of the world followed another, very different path. Great whales roamed the mysterious depths of the newly emerging Southern Ocean, early primates made their presence felt in the forge of Africa and marsupials followed their own evolutionary track under Australia's burning sun while, far to the south, the ice sheet of Antarctica consolidated and chilled the airs and seas.
This new tempestuous land of snowstorms and icy turbulent oceans underwent its own evolution dominated by flightless penguins and thickly insulated seals able to take advantage of a cold but relatively constant ocean. While fishes proliferated in other, warmer oceans, these ice-bound seas were too harsh for most, and lowly crustaceans such as Antarctic krill exploited a rich untapped niche of phytoplankton. Grasses, flowering plants and mighty trees dominated many corners of the still-developing earth, but the icy cold of Antarctica pushed such luxuriant vegetation northwards to more welcoming climes. Only mosses and lichens hung grimly on, where land escaped the ice cover.
Without much vegetation and subject to extreme cold, Antarctica was too hostile for permanent terrestrialanimals save for a few simple forms of invertebrates able to colonize small, more amenable micro-habitats. Antarctica became a unique kingdom of ice and snow and rocks, of savage cold, of raging blizzards and windswept lonely seas, where only a limited number of life forms managed to flourish.
Two-thirds of the earth's landmass is in the northern hemisphere, whereas in the southern hemisphere, 80 per cent is covered by water. To the south of Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand lie the forbidding Southern Ocean and the frozen continent of Antarctica. Inhospitable and restless, the vast Southern Ocean completely surrounds this continent at the 'bottom of the world' and has isolated Antarctica and the subantarctic islands from over 2000 years of human exploration and discovery. After Greek philosophers, in 500 BC, proposed that the world was round and not flat, they argued that the known continental landmasses in the northern hemisphere had to be 'balanced' by some equivalent landmass in the southern hemisphere. By the early 16th century, evidence began to accumulate that such a landmass might indeed exist, but it was not until barely 150 years ago that the 'unknown southern land', Terra Australis Incognita, was finally sighted for the first time. Since then, Antarctica has captured the imagination of nations, explorers and scientists, provoking a quest for minerals, seal and whale products, fish and krill, and engendering both the greed and nobility of humankind. More recently, tourism has become a growing industry, particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula region, while global concern over the greenhouse effect and the ozone hole may significantly affect this threatened continent. Fortunately, the Antarctic Treaty system, launched in 1960, monitors such concerns and conflicting interests by a process of rare international consensus and agreement. Antarctica may yet prove to be the jewel in the crown of human conservation efforts, but we should not delude ourselves... it will require commitment and a common vision for the future. Education will be the key.