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Helicopter lands behind tents.
Photo Credit: Kristan Hutchison/Antarctic Photo Library
A helicopter lands behind the main communications and cooking tents at the Beardmore field camp in the Transantarctic Mountains during the 2003-04 field season. About 25 years ago, the science camp, revived about once a decade, hosted a diplomatic meeting concerning the Antarctic Treaty. A new camp is under way in 2010-11. 

Mountain retreat

Antarctic Treaty meeting at Beardmore field camp marked unique moment in history

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[Editor’s Note: To quote a former Antarctic Sun editor … “Like the mythical town of Brigadoon, a village of tents appears on a glacial arm 50 miles from Beardmore Glacier about once a decade, then disappears.” Such a scientific field camp is again appearing in the Transantarctic Mountains this year. Former National Science Foundation External U.S. government site-staffer Guy Guthridge recalls the first and perhaps most unique incarnation of the camp 25 years ago.]

Science, long celebrated for its starring role in bringing diplomats to the negotiating table to sign the 1959 Antarctic Treaty External U.S. government site, gave an encore performance in 1985. For seven gorgeous days in January that year, an unlikely mix of international lawyers and foreign-service officers from 25 countries — treaty and non-treaty nations both — left their striped pants behind to rough it with scientists in the Transantarctic Mountains.

I joined the spirited and articulate group after hosting a long and meticulously planned day with them to show off America’s research station at the geographic South Pole External U.S. government site, a two-hour plane ride from the diplomats’ camp.

Twenty-five years later, and 50 years since the United States Senate ratified our nation’s adherence to the treaty, it’s worth looking back at a probably unrepeatable event in U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site history.

For sure, the camp was an unusual field project in the U.S. Antarctic Program. Over more than two years, Malaysia, Antigua and Barbuda, had made no secret of their challenge to the original 12 Antarctic Treaty signatories — and the 20 nations that since had joined — that the treaty was the wrong way to manage Antarctica.

They argued that the treaty had three fatal flaws: it was exclusive (not all nations were members), it was total (it covered all activities in Antarctica), and it was unaccountable (it was not subject to review by another body).

“The Question of Antarctica” had been on the United Nations General Assembly agenda in 1983. The next year a U.N. report, with three volumes of annexes containing governments’ responses, stimulated another discussion at New York. Malaysia led the small chorus that thought a U.N.-centered regime should replace the treaty.

The treaty nations were not enthusiastic about this initiative.

James H. Zumberge, president of the University of Southern California and U.S. delegate to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) External Non-U.S. government site, was concerned that officials in non-Antarctic Treaty nations simply didn’t know enough about Antarctica and the treaty. He arranged the workshop in Antarctica, which took place at a research camp on the Bowden Névé, 357 nautical miles from the South Pole.

The camp was called Beardmore South because it was near Beardmore Glacier. It consisted of Jameways — insulated canvas huts with running water and heat and not much else.

The 57 scientists and diplomats snored together, dressed together, ate together, and conferred. They punctuated the day-long sessions only with walks and the occasional ball game in the beautiful setting — along with their one-day excursion to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

“In an atmosphere conducive to free interchange, participants were able to gain a deeper appreciation of each others’ views ... while experiencing the practical realities of Antarctic operations,” Zumberge and Lee A. Kimball wrote in a 1986 National Academy Press book (Antarctic Treaty System – An Assessment) recording the workshop’s proceedings.

The discussions, I recall, were overwhelmingly friendly but frank.

The stance of scientists at the conference toward the nonjoiners seemed, mostly, “Get real.” 

William F. Budd (Australia) noted that “knowledge needs to be recognized as the primary motivation for the high level of continued interest” and that the treaty was formed only “after SCAR provided an international political framework.” Acknowledging that hopes for mineral resources had attracted attention to the continent (the treaty’s mining ban was six years in the future) he said, “economically viable exploitation in the foreseeable future is not a likely prospect.”  The statement still seems valid a quarter-century later. 1 2   Next