ANTARCTICA, the only continent without a border, is crucial to our planetary survival, yet it is on the verge of becoming a ``wild west'' mining territory with no law but the 200-mile-an-hour winds that blow across her icy surface. Antarctica holds 90 percent of the earth's ice and is the major cold source that mitigates the heat of the sun as it beats through our tattered ozone.
Now Jacques Cousteau and his Cousteau Society are heading up a global campaign to block the adoption of the Wellington Convention Accords drafted in New Zealand in 1988. The Accords would open our last frontier for the mining of uranium, heavy metals, coal, and the drilling of oil.
``In July of 1988, I saw a small news item about the opening of Antarctica to mining. This is enormous news, and it was just a few lines. It seemed to me there had been a coverup,'' Mr. Cousteau said at a recent press conference.
Antarctica's 5.4 million square miles are the essential coolant element of the earth's thermodynamic machine. The average temperature there is minus-49 degrees centigrade.
The Society notes that ``the Antarctic glacial cap reflects up to 80 percent of the solar radiation it receives, thereby helping maintain low temperatures in the area. This capacity for `manufacturing' cold in the heart of a dynamic system allows a regulation of the earth's mean temperature.''
Cousteau contends that any further degradation of the continent would have grave global environmental impacts and further accelerate the ``greenhouse effect.''
``This would be total folly. Any change in the color of the surface, even dust, and the ice would melt and cause the sea to rise two or three meters,'' Cousteau said. ``They say you can prospect with small charges, or if you mine, you have to be clean. Who is going to implement these conditions? There is no authority to do it.''
In 1959, the International Antarctic Treaty reserved the icy continent for only peaceful and scientific purposes. Thirty-nine countries have since signed the treaty. In June of 1988, these signatory nations adopted the first Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Material Resource Activities at Wellington, New Zealand, opening the door to exploitation of its natural resources.
According to the Cousteau Society, ``The negotiators of the Antarctic Treaty had not envisioned the insatiable appetite of modern man for energy and mineral resources, thus they did not think it necessary to regulate specifically this type of activity, thereby leaving a `legal void.' This legal void, as it were, protected the Antarctic effectively for nearly 30 years, since no one could risk prospecting and exploring without being assured of a license to develop, which only international regulation can guarantee.''
Cousteau wants nations to reject the Accords, which he feels will lead to the destruction of the continent, thereby disrupting the planet's atmospheric equilibrium.
The prospect of drilling for oil on and near Antarctica deeply troubles him. ``What would happen if `Valdez' had happened in Antarctica? In such places as cold and arctic, things remain and oil spills will do the same. The disaster will stay almost forever.''
To underscore his point as to the lack of regulation and environmental oversight on the continent, Cousteau tells the story of the Bahia Paraiso, a supply ship that sunk a year ago near the American scientific base at the South Pole. It sits in the same place to this day leaking its 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the same pristine arctic waters. Cousteau says that, as a result, 2,000 birds died and years of scientific study were destroyed.
When asked if anyone had taken responsibility for the ship, or if there had been any regulatory oversight of the cleanup, Cousteau responded, ``As of today, no. Nothing. The Argentinians had a project, but a year has passed and nothing has been done.''
As to whether anyone would be liable for the environmental damage and have to pay fines or penalties, he said, ``No, if you want to go there, just go. If you want to wreck the Antarctic, go ahead and wreck it. Nobody owns the Antarctic, and theoretically nobody can complain. So I ask, when there is a mining disaster, who will appeal? It is a very disturbing situation.''
Presently, the last frontier is also having its waters over-fished, as 100 Russian fishing boats and smaller flotillas from Chile and Japan go after the krill, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean that is a major food source for penguins, seabirds, seals, whales, and fish.
Cousteau recently traveled to Antarctica with six children, one representing each continent. ``The presence of these children in Antarctica is indispensable as a symbol. Their flag suggests a child embracing Antarctica,'' he said.
Cousteau has gotten 1.5 million signatures in France and 250,000 in the US to protest mineral exploitation of Antarctica. Mining interests in Norway, the US, and the United Kingdom are the most persistent in trying to open up our last frontier.
Do we yet have the character or the foresight to meet the challenge of preserving this vital element of our planet? Can we transcend territorial boundaries and greedy impulses to reach a protective international consensus on the fate of Antarctica?
Antarctica can provide a model for global environmental cooperation. Its exploitation can be the source of the planet's accelerated ecological demise.