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<v Host>This program is made possible by a grant from Ashland Oil, Inc. <v Narrator>November 29th, 1929, it was almost an unknown land when Admiral Richard E. Byrd and his crew became the first men to fly over the South Pole. That flight 50 years ago was a turning point that paved the way for extensive and safe exploration of the white continent. <v Narrator>Antarctica. A desolate cold which reverberates with light for six months of summer and then disappears into winter darkness, one tenth of the Earth's land surface, yet virtually unexplored until this century. A barren land whose cup of ice is a vital key to understanding our global climate. A fatal ocean whose waters may offer the hope of food for a protein hungry world. An unprecedented experiment in international cooperation, which may give way to conflict and a scramble for untapped resources. Antarctica. Thousands of years before we set eyes upon it, Antarctica existed in our imaginations, the ancient Greeks had legends of a great southern continent, rich in wealth and highly populated. They named it Antarctica's later. Other geographers incorporated this unseen region into their maps and called it terra Australia's incognita. The southern land not yet known. Over the centuries, explorers pushed back the boundaries of the known world. Some even sought to discover this mysterious continent, but they were driven back by terrible seas of floating ice and cutting cold. It was a land that demanded trial and hardship before it would reveal its secrets. Captain James Cook, the great English explorer, finally confronted this 2000 year old legend beginning in 1772. He spent three years circumnavigating the continent. Cook never saw the mainland, but had seen enough icebergs to predict accurately that it was a bleak land which spawned them, he presumed that man would derive no benefit from it. He was wrong. His navigation charts and reports of seals and whales opened up this new region to other explorers and adventurers. Seal hunters, after depleting the northern Arctic herds, pushed southward looking for furs to fill their holds. By the 1930s, millions of fur seals had been slaughtered, their numbers reduced to the brink of extinction. Huge elephant seals weighing four tons were butchered for the oil, which their blubber yielded oil to lubricate the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Numerous whales also faced this onslaught. Fortunes were made in the 19th century by whalers who brought back oil baleen for corsets and ambergris for perfume's. One hundred years after Cook's voyage, some of Antarctica's most valuable living marine resources had already been depleted by man. But while the seas were charted and the marine mammals exploited, the continent remained virtually unexplored. Stimulated by the challenge of discovery, teams of international explorers race to be first at the South Pole. It was the beginning of the 20th century, Antarctica's age of heroes. Listen to the words of Norwegian Roald Amundsen. The slightest gust of wind produced a sensation as if one's face was being cut backwards and forwards with a blunt knife. Amundsen and his men became the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. A few weeks later, the British expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, arrived at the pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten them in the race. Scott's journal recorded the disappointment and Norwegian's of first at the poll. All daydreams must go Greek God, this is an awful place now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.
<v Narrator>The frozen bodies of Scott and his team were found 11 miles from the safety of a provision camp. Eighteen years later, Admiral Richard E. Byrd ushered in the era of modern technology and applied it to Antarctic exploration. Dr. Lawrence Gould, a geologist, was second in command on the first word expedition. <v Dr. Lawrence Gould>The first Byrd Antarctic expedition was the first American expedition ever to land in Antarctica. And it was also a critical one because it introduced into Antarctic exploration techniques and technology that had never been used before.
<v Dr. Lawrence Gould>We were the first people operating in Antarctica to use radio and communication. We were the first ones to establish a permanent air base and make flight the primary method of operation. People don't realize when they look back 50 years that the airplanes we used then were very primitive little atay. Wings and body were made of aluminum, corrugated alumina, look for all the world like a washboard. We call it the flying washboard. Commander Byrd himself insisted that this journey should be photographed for the scientific future. You can't exaggerate the added expansion of scientific information about that Arctic air that came from aerial photography. They were having a hard time getting up over the hump, as we called it, the edge of the plateau where they had to get above 11000 feet walking, the chief pilot said we cannot make it. And so the commander said, we've got to dump the food. And McKinley, who is the aerial photographer to open the hatch and dumped out two big bags of food in bulk and shouted, That'll do it. He reports how he could feel the plane lift. Well, that ensured the success of the flight. And that one, fourteen a.m. on November 29, they decided that they were exactly over the bull. Then there was no problem about getting back home. They were well received back a little America, and indeed it was right that this flight should have made headlines around the world. As history shows, Commander Bird or now Admiral Byrd after his first expedition. Got so excited about Antarctica that he devoted the rest of his life to it. What he did on the succeeding expeditions was a natural succession of what we did on the first one, an increase in the scope of the scientific program, emphasis upon more things, a great deal of added mapping, a great deal in oceanography, seismology and almost any science to want to think of. Indeed, what he did then was a kind of a preparation for the great exploration going on now.
<v Narrator>This major thrust of modern Antarctic research began with the International Geophysical Year, or Idjwi, in 1957. This was the first global effort to study the Earth's geophysics and climate. Antarctica was chosen as a main region to investigate, as so little was still known about it. Initially, 12 countries set up 50 research stations and began the first cooperative and concerted study of the southern continent. Based on the success of the Idjwi, a unique treaty evolved in 1959. Today, 13 member nations have signed the 30 year treaty. Dr. James Zumberge is chairman of the Committee on International Relations for the National Academy of Sciences. <v Dr. James Zumberge>Essentially the Antarctic Treaty is a document signed by 13 countries in which there is fundamental agreement that Antarctica will be never the site of any military activities other than logistics support of scientific operations, that there will be serious attempts to conserve its environment, that it will be not used for atomic testing or waste disposal, and will provide a scientific laboratory in which there is free and open access by all scientist of of any nation that carries out serious scientific investigation there.
<v Narrator>In order to do research, these nations set aside the controversial issue of Antarctic sovereignty claims. By the late 1950s, Chile, Argentina and Great Britain had made overlapping claims Norway, Australia, France and New Zealand had made others. The remaining six nations, the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, South Africa, Belgium and Poland make no claims, nor do they recognize any. <v Dr. James Zumberge>The genius of the Antarctic Treaty is that here are 13 nations of which seven have made actual land claims. Got together and decided on a new arrangement of territorial rights, nations with diametrically opposed views on this have made a new agreement unique in all of the history of mankind to manage this land in a collective, collaborative way. <v Narrator>The claims issue was sidestepped. Antarctica had now evolved into a larger experiment in international politics. Ironically, Antarctica is frozen. Wastes provided a thaw in East-West relations at the height of the Cold War. Out of this international scientific effort came a wealth of new knowledge in such fields as geology, human physiology, oceanography, meteorology and glaciology. We now know that Antarctica is covered by a vast ice sheet with an area of five and a half million square miles. This is an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined and accounts for one tenth of the Earth's land surface. The average thickness of ice is over a mile and in some regions reaches depths of over two miles. Only a few dry valleys and rocky crags are left uncovered by this mantle of glacial ice. Antarctica's geography makes it the coldest place on earth. Winter temperatures average around minus 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer temperatures are about five degrees. And it's not only cold, it's quite dry. In fact, most of Antarctica is so arid that it ranks as one of the world's great deserts, along with the Gobi and Sahara. Precipitation averages less than two inches a year in many regions. Those terrible blizzards raging over 100 miles an hour are, for the most part, moving around previously fallen snow. Over hundreds of years, the snow is compressed to ice, becomes part of the glaciers and eventually moves toward the sea, here, large sections break off to form icebergs. They can tower up to 20 stories above the sea and cover areas of hundreds of square miles. All this ice plays an important role in balancing the world's heat budget. Many scientists are studying the ice caps impact on global climate. Some research indicates that portions of the ice cap appear to be resting precariously on bedrock if the earth becomes warmer because of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, this ice sheet might begin to melt, breakup and slide off its rock bed into the ocean. This could raise the world's sea level many feet within a matter of decades.
<v Narrator>Antarctica's cap of glacial ice is surrounded by a vast expanse of sea ice, which expands and contracts with the changing seasons in winter. It covers millions of square miles, an area seven times greater than it covers in summer. Can we weave a story of life over this terrain of frozen water and dry valleys? Surprisingly, life does survive in this parched desert of ice. Animals and plants have managed to carve out niches and even live within a few hundred miles of the South Pole. But one has to search carefully on hands and knees with a magnifying glass to appreciate Antarctic terrestrial life and what is found are simple insects. These creatures are giants of adaptation, if not in size. Plants consist of simple forms such as lichens and mosses and are found in ice free regions. Microscopic organisms like fungi and algae live in the cracks of rocks. This sparse ecosystem offers biologists the opportunity to study simple living interactions, what is learned may shed light on the complexity of our more common land environments. Though the land is covered by a desert of ice, Antarctic waters are extremely productive.
<v Narrator>For 150 years, hunters have taken advantage of this teeming life by harvesting millions of marine mammals. But by the middle of the 20th century, the explosive harpoon and factory ship had turned the hunters into a slaughter. Where once 200000 blue whales lived, perhaps 6000 remain other species, two were hunted almost to extinction. Now, another organism may be Antarctica's next commercial target. It is the center of this sea of life, a one inch shrimp like crustacean known as krill. Crill, the hope of food for a protein hungry world. Suggested Crill Harvest's might double the world's entire fishery catch. The role Crill plays in the Southern Ocean ecosystem is unique. Compared to other regions, the Antarctic food web is relatively simple. Many animals, including some whales, penguins, seals and squid, depend on krill for their survival. Yet despite Grillz vital role, scientists are only beginning to unravel the biological mysteries surrounding this creature, its life cycle, distribution and reproductive behavior are still relatively unknown. Charlene Dennis is an Antarctic research scientist who is studying the biology of krill.
<v Charlene Dennis>One of the most spectacular aspects of krill biology is their habit of congregating in huge swarms. They've been counted up to about 60 thousand animals per cubic meter of water. The swarming is actually what makes them very interesting commercially because large numbers of animals can be found in one place. <v Narrator>Krill fishing is already underway with Japan, West Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland together harvesting over 100000 tons a year. The catch is then processed and marketed for human consumption and is used as animal fodder. Exactly how much krill can be harvested without repeating the mistakes of the past is a subject of controversy. <v Charlene Dennis>Without further knowledge of the lifespan or the general biology of the Antarctic krill. The major dangers are overfishing, of course, as has been done previously with the whales and therefore a collapse of a species. But more importantly, krill is the food for whales, seals, penguins, winged birds, fish and squid as well. Consequently, if they are overfished, all of these populations are possibly going to collapse or at least be damaged beyond repair.
<v Narrator>On a broader level, the Krill Story embraces some very complex political questions who should benefit from Antarctic resources and how should they be managed? In September 1979, the 10th biennial Antarctic Treaty meeting was held in Washington to finalize an agreement on the living marine resources, a unique treaty is evolving. The management and harvesting of krill will be based on an understanding of the whole Antarctic ecosystem rather than the krill alone. This is the first major application of the ecosystem concept for fisheries management. The Crill treaty, however, is just the tip of the resource iceberg, Antarctica's commercial prospects include not only krill but also minerals. Barbara Mitchell is an Antarctic policy analyst for the London based International Institute for Environment and Development.
<v Barbara Mitchell>I think it's true to say that the US has indeed all the other treaty parties is negotiating with one eye over its shoulder on the minerals regime, very concerned not to jeopardize its interests in the mineral negotiations, not to give away anything that would set a precedent for the minerals negotiations. <v Narrator>On the Antarctic continent. Enormous deposits of low grade coal have been found, and significant amounts of copper, chromium and nickel may be present. But the high cost of mining in Antarctica and the distance of world markets may preclude commercial exploitation for decades. On Antarctica's continental shelf, preliminary drilling surveys indicate the possible presence of oil and gas. But the feasibility of extracting oil from the continental shelf without severe environmental impacts has been questioned. Today's drilling technology is not prepared to withstand Antarctica's violent storms, nor icebergs capable of scouring the ocean floor at depths of six hundred feet. Nevertheless, this interest in minerals is forcing the treaty nations to deal with the issue of sovereignty.
<v Barbara Mitchell>If, for example, Australia were to start drilling off its, um, off IT sector in Antarctica, drilling for oil and gas, and if it were to prevent other nations from doing the same claimant, nations like the US would be forced to take issue with the Australians, would be forced, forced to discuss this problem, because not to do so would be to admit that the Australians had some right in and out to get some some rights, some territorial rights, which they never have recognized up till now. <v K.G. Brennan>It's an attribute of sovereignty that a coastal state exercises sovereign rights over the mineral resources of the continental shelf. We have asserted those rights a long time ago in nineteen fifty three. I think it was, uh, and it would be, uh, consistent with that, that, uh, other states could not go and, uh, prospect for oil in those areas.
<v Y.I Tolstikov>The Soviet Union does not recognize the Antarctic claims of other countries. We do not think that sovereignty claims are justified. A similar position is taken by some other countries, including the USA. <v Barbara Mitchell>It's really very difficult indeed to conceive of any kind of solution to the mineral resource issue because of the entrenched positions of claimants and non claimants. <v Dr. James Zumberge>The whole purpose of the treaty is to provide a framework within which to negotiate these difficult questions. After all. There was nothing to negotiate. We wouldn't need the treaty. <v Narrator>Many conservationist groups believe Antarctica should not be used for mineral exploitation, considering the environmental risks and lack of safe technology, they would prefer to see Antarctica declared a world preserve, a continental park set aside in its pristine beauty for scientific research. Well. Krill, minerals, offshore oil, potential resources waiting to be exploited amidst complex international legalities, even the purity of Antarctica must confront development. But only with determined international commitment can Antarctica continue to fulfill the role envisioned by Admiral Byrd when he said, I am hopeful that Antarctica will shine forth as a continent of peace, as nations working together there in the cause of science set an example of international cooperation.
Antarctica: Desert of Ice, Sea of Life
Producing Organization
San Diego State University. Science Center
KPBS (Television station : San Diego, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia)
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"ANTARCTICA, its past and future is examined in 'Desert of Ice, Sea of Life' in order to gain a basic awareness of the intricacies of the Antarctic environment and international politics. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's flight over the South Pole, this documentary uses archival film footage, still photographs and interviews to chronicle early Antarctic expeditions, including that of Capt. James Cook, the great English explorer, who reached the outer 'islands of the ice' in the 18th century. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole first, arriving on Dec. 14, 1911. He was closely followed by a broken-hearted British expedition led by Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his men in a polar blizzard just days after being beaten to their goal. "Much of Admiral Byrd's expedition was recorded on film. The documentary shows the explorer and his men preparing for the flight and in the plane over the great polar plateau. Dr. Laurence Gould, a geologist who was second in command during the Byrd expedition, describes the harrowing flight and its importance to science. "Antarctic exploration was [stepped up] with the advent of the International Geophysical Year in 1957, which spawned the 1959 signing of the unique 13-nation Antarctic Treaty. Dr. James Zumberge of the National Academy of Sciences explains the treaty and its ban on any military activities on the continent. Several developments make this treaty of increasing significance: the discovery of vast beds of a shrimp-like crustacean known as krill and possible presence of significant quantities of oil, copper, coal, chromium and nickel. The delicate Antarctic marine eco-system could be permanently damaged by over-harvesting of krill, and the effects of an oil spill on fragile Antarctic life forms could be devastating. The future of Antarctica is unknown. The current harmony produced by the successful 13-nation treaty can continue, or it could be destroyed by greedy, competing interests."--1979 Peabody Awards entry form. This program was produced by KPBS-TV.
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Director: Wilson, Ryall
Executive Producer: Kirsch, Jeffrey
Producer: Wilson, Ryall
Producing Organization: San Diego State University. Science Center
Producing Organization: KPBS (Television station : San Diego, Calif.)
Speaker: Tolstikov, Y.I.
Speaker: Denys, Charlene
Speaker: Gould, Laurence
Speaker: Zumberge, James
Speaker: Brennan, K.G.
Speaker: Mitchell, Barbara
Writer: Stevens, Payson
AAPB Contributor Holdings
The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia
Identifier: cpb-aacip-03626847615 (Filename)
Format: U-matic
Duration: 00:29:00
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Chicago: “Antarctica: Desert of Ice, Sea of Life,” 1979-11-19, The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 26, 2022,
MLA: “Antarctica: Desert of Ice, Sea of Life.” 1979-11-19. The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 26, 2022. <>.
APA: Antarctica: Desert of Ice, Sea of Life. Boston, MA: The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from