For the past year or so I've been trekking and cogitating about Antarctica. I had the good fortune to have the official task of heading up a safety panel reviewing all U.S. activities in Antarctica for the National Science Foundation. NSF is the agency charged with overall management of United States interests within the treaty area, i.e. all ocean and land areas south of 60 degrees south latitude.
Larger than Europe and the U.S. put together, home to 70 percent of the planet's fresh water (in solid form averaging over 7,000 feet in thickness), continental guinea pig for living without an ozone blanket, the highest, coldest, driest desert in the world (7,000-13,000 feet, -128 degrees F, 1-2 inches of water annually) . . . Antarctica is unquestionably unique.
While fascinated with the physical and biological features of the continent, and concentrating on improving the safety of U.S. operations there, my REAL fascination with Antarctica was and is the political regime, its prospects and implications.
Antarctica is one of three or four global commons, depending on how you count the atmosphere. More than the air, oceans or space, Antarctica is a functional, multinational operating environment. The Antarctic Treaty System has governed the behavior of nations for the past 28 years, and it has served well, to the extent it has been challenged . . . which is not much. However, there are 38 nations which have agreed to abide by the provisions of the treaty and 20 which are active on the continent and are full voting members. A recent addition, and by far the most difficult "convention" added to the treaty, was the agreement on regulating the exploration and development of natural resources.
The issue for me, convinced that responsible political management of the space environment (as well as the terrestrial one) is critical to our human future, is the exercise and durability of the Antarctic Treaty and the extension of this experience into the space regime.
More generally ... in the next 20 years, it will be Antarctica and space which will be the testing grounds for whether or not humanity can move successfully beyond sovereignty to responsible governance of the commons, a