On March 3, 1990, the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition came to an end. After 3,741 miles and seven months, a team of six men skied into the Soviet Union's isolated base on the edge of the continent, unhitched their dog sleds and went inside to take a well-deserved shower. It was the first-ever un-mechanized crossing, the first and last dog-sled traverse, and the longest journey in the history of Antarctic exploration... the journey of a lifetime for those who endured the hardship and witnessed the splendor, and for those of us who worked tirelessly for three years behind the scenes to pull it off.
Yet the physical and organizational feats - grand as they were - are not what's on my mind today as congratulatory anniversary messages go back and forth among the Trans-Antarctica family. I'm wondering how many remember the true meaning of the expedition; I'm trying to guess who will pick up the purpose, the message and the mantle in years to come.
The 1989-1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition was organized to bring world attention to the continent of Antarctica as consensus on its thirty-year treaty showed signs of unraveling. Unique in the world, the Antarctic Treaty dedicates the entire continent to rule by consensus, shared scientific research and a ban on military activity. No one owns the continent as long as all agree. Every thirty years, the treaty is open for debate and alteration. In 1989 - even as the world's first ozone hole appeared over the continent - the treaty's signatory nations were debating the merits of allowing mining of Antarctica under certain conditions. Six men set out on an epic journey to make sure that the world knew the stakes, should the treaty fall apart. The publicity and educational programs surrounding their efforts shone a bright spotlight on the negotiations as the signatory nations worked toward a successful compromise in 1991.
Antarctica is not only a symbol of peace and cooperation. It is a place where vital research is being conducted on the health and future of the planet; it is the epi-center of the visible changes to our melting polar ice, the canary in the cage. Already the first 400 miles of the Trans-Antarctica expedition - along the Larsen Ice Shelf - have completely disappeared.
The next opening for treaty changes is only five years away - in 2021 - and I wonder... Where do the treaty nations stand today? Who will make sure that the world understands the importance of keeping this continent a place of collaboration and peace? How will we know if there are threats to consensus? Who will educate the children so their love for the continent keeps the politicians on their toes?
I have no doubt that those of us who worked so hard the last time around will find time to advocate from the sidelines. But time is short, and the stakes are higher than ever. Capturing the attention of the world at large requires the energy of the generation that will be here for the next thirty years, those who have the most to lose should the treaty be undone. Here's hoping they are out there, making their plans.
Happy 25th anniversary, Trans-Antarctica!