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Antarctica — Diplomats at the End of the World

Antarctica remains as mysterious as it is legendary.  Studied throughout history for its geology, climate, and resources, Antarctica’s allure is widespread.  The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 and went into effect in 1961, stipulates that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes and that “no new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.” To ensure compliance, all areas of Antarctica, including the bases, are open for inspection at all times. Scientists conducting research make up the majority of the temporary population. While tourism is growing, few individuals get the opportunity to visit the frozen continent, although some Foreign Service Officers are able to travel there on official business.

Bill Littlewood talks about his experiences with Antarctic exploration in the mid-1950s; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 2001. Theodore Sellin discusses the history of the Antarctic Treaty in Tom Dunnigan’s March 2003 interview. Ann Martindell was Ambassador to New Zealand from 1979-81 and was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Michael W. Cotter, who served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Santiago, Chile from 1992 to 1995, discusses sovereignty claims during an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in December 1998. Josiah Beeman recounts a touching encounter with Everest explorer Edmund Hillary; he was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in May 2001. Morton R. Dworken, Jr. notes the importance of Antarctic research on global warming in an interview with Ambassador Raymond Ewing beginning in March 2008. You can also read about Eileen Malloy’s experience in Siberia during an arms control inspection.


“I was away for about six months each time”

Operation Deep Freeze
Bill Littlewood, 1954

LITTLEWOOD: [In September 1954] I found myself with a desk job. But I wanted field work. Oceanography, and later Foreign Service, is really the way to see other parts of the world. So I was needling my Division Director to put me back in the sea-going job. He said that we were starting to prepare for the “International Geophysical Year” [IGY, 1957-58] coming up. Everybody will remember that the IGY was when Sputnik went up.

The Antarctic program “Operation Deep Freeze” would be starting, as the U.S. had to find sites for the research bases that were going to be built there. The Navy (I was still working for the U.S. Navy), would be the one that did the ocean transportation, logistics and the operations. We would do an oceanographic program on the way down, there, and on the way back, because there were very little oceanographic data from the Antarctic areas at that time. We would have oceanographic teams on each of the four icebreakers. We often would be operating very far apart, for example one icebreaker on one side of the Antarctic and another on the other side, I was in charge of that programming for oceanography so I wrote up the plan and instructions.

I was away for about six months each time. My wife knew she was marrying an American civilian sailor, but I told her longest I would be away was three months. Now it’s six months down and six months back, not the three that I had promised. We had a little girl, I’d see our little girl every six months. Not good!…It was just such a long time. I said, “Well, it all ends in four years.” A couple of years finding base sites and making the stations, and then a year and a half for the official IGY seasons down there. Which means two more Antarctic seasons. And so it’s really four years and then it’s all over and I’ll go back (I presumed) to the other routine of three months away and three months back.

What then happened was the Antarctic Treaty. The thirty-year Antarctic Treaty is still going on! It’s passed its thirty years in ’91. It’s now over forty years and going strong. So Antarctic scientific work is still going on there. Its purpose was to continue the great international scientific studies there that occurred during the IGY. We hope it will never stop. All national claims on the Antarctic are put aside under the Antarctic Treaty….

The Antarctic continent is the size of the United States and Western Europe together. I was in charge of planning where our teams would go. They had to go more or less where the icebreakers had to go, but then there were some deviations to do oceanographic work too, provided they don’t get called away on some emergency once they finish their continental station support work. We oceanographers weren’t very popular when the ships were heading home, as we would stop to do an oceanographic station. Everybody wants to get home and every two-hour station we would make, delayed the ship’s arrival back at home port. We compromised in a lot of those.

Q: I imagine the equipment was getting more and more sophisticated as each year went by.

LITTLEWOOD: No, speaking only for the IGY period, it had some changes, but the subsequent electronic field changes really had not come in. We were still using Nansen bottles [a device for obtaining samples of seawater at a specific depth, designed in 1910 by the early 20th-century explorer and oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen] and a lot of physical instruments rather than a lot of electronic instruments. I got out of oceanography as the Antarctic Treaty program started, with many changes later.

“OPEC had been established, the oil embargo was in effect, and everyone was scrambling for oil”

Theodore Sellin
Bureau for Oceans, Environment and Science (OES) , 1974 to 1978

SELLIN: The Antarctic Treaty was becoming very important for one particular reason. This was 1974. OPEC had been established, the oil embargo was in effect, and everyone was scrambling for oil. And somehow or other, there had been some research done to suggest that there was oil under the continental shelf of Antarctica.

Now, the fact that this continental shelf is submerged to God knows how far down, 800 feet or something, because of the weight of the ice on the continent, it’s very hard to get at that stuff. But at the same time, the Law of the Sea Treaty was being negotiated, and hydrocarbon resources were involved in the Law of the Sea, and Antarctica became a thorny part of the Law of the Sea negotiations.

The upshot of this was that suddenly, instead of having the National Science Foundation and the State Department making up Antarctic policy and the delegations to the Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings, suddenly you had to have the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] as observers, we had to have Commerce because of the oil, DOD [Department of Defense] because of logistics, and so on. So these delegations to the annual consultative meetings grew tremendously. The job took on a dimension that was not envisioned by me or anyone, and turned out to be a very important job and a stimulating one. I was there when we admitted the first new consultative party member, Poland…

They marched into the consultative meeting in London and said, “Here we are. We’re consultative members….” And nobody knew what the hell to do, because it’s the first new member since the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 countries in 1961. So we scrambled around and told them we’ll have a special meeting and to come back again. So, amongst the 12 nations it was agreed that there would be a little formal entry ceremony and the next day they came in and we admitted them as consultative members.

And since then, I think there are 30 members now. It’s grown hugely. But in the 70’s there was confusion about Antarctica’s future. And potential mineral resources exploitation, even marine living resources, were driving forces that could eroding the pristine environmental conditions of the continent, which State was trying to protect….

Q: Now, were there difficulties with Congress in this regard?

SELLIN: Well, Senator [Claiborne] Pell was the only one that I ever had any interaction with. I actually went to testify; I had never done that before. He called a committee meeting to explore our position on the oil exploitation. The National Science Foundation and the State Department weren’t too keen on the oil drilling notion in Antarctica, but we had some pretty powerful enemies. So we did testify and it turned out to be a little meeting in Senator Pell’s office with a stenographer….

So we got the text and we deleted a few things, not a whole lot, and sent it back. Of course, we even put in some tie-in language so it would look as though it was the transcript, but he printed it with these damned deletions in it. Anyhow, it wasn’t Congress so much an adversary, it was really the overall full- court press by various other government agencies who locked horns. Of course the EPA was in a sense on the State Department’s side, and on the National Science Foundation’s side. They didn’t want anybody to interrupt the scientific work or mess up the penguin rookeries and things like that.

And one of the things we had to do was create designated areas of special interest where nobody could go. These would be either nature preserves or places that had scientific potential for some kind of research. That was one of the principal jobs of the consultative meetings every year, to redraw the map of Antarctica a little bit. I’m not sure if everyone knows this, but we do not have a claim to Antarctica. There is no U.S. claim….

The Antarctic Treaty, in fact, puts all claims in abeyance. No one is enforcing an existing claim to territory in Antarctica as long as they are signatories to the Treaty, and would not exercise their sovereign rights to any of those areas unless the Treaty were abrogated. So that was the interesting part of the work, and the one that kept me fully occupied for several years. 

“One of my first experiences down there was in 1979 when that Air New Zealand plane crashed”

Anne Martindell
Ambassador to New Zealand, 1979 to 1981 

MARTINDELL: Tourist flights don’t go to the Antarctic any more. One of my first experiences down there was in 1979 when that Air New Zealand plane crashed….Naturally we were very upset. Sometime before, the Navy captain had come to me, he was the captain in charge, and he said, “Please Ambassador, will you go to the highest level of the government, something dreadful is going to happen, and we will have to rescue the victims.” I think it was three months later that the crash killed 257.

Q: It was a sightseeing DC-10 that crashed on November 28th. It was already the third fatal crash of 1979 in Antarctica. The others must have been smaller planes.

MARTINDELL: They canceled the tourist flights after that, and then there was a cover up. A judge called it an “orchestrated litany of lies.” 

“During my tenure we had a couple of cases where consuls had to go and repatriate bodies”

Ambassador Michael W. Cotter
Deputy Chief of Mission in Santiago, 1992 to 1995 

COTTER: Chile and Argentina extend down close to Antarctica. If you look at a map, there is a peninsula that sticks up from Antarctica and comes close to those countries. They are separated from it by the Drake Channel, which is the main passage through Cape Horn. Chile and Argentina are among a number of countries that have territorial claims in Antarctica. The U.S. doesn’t. We have always maintained that the white continent ought to be saved as an international zone for scientific exploration. A number of other countries, primarily but not solely, those that are contiguous to Antarctica take a different view and assert territorial sovereignty claims.

Under the Antarctic Treaty, all countries agreed to place those claims in abeyance. In any event, that peninsula is very popular for scientific stations. One main reason is that in the summer the snow all melts and it is solid ground, which makes it easier to build and support bases. That is good for countries whose technology doesn’t really go as far as supporting bases on ice. On that peninsula, you find, in one very small area, a large number of bases, including Chinese, Russian, Polish, British, German, and Argentine, of course. All those bases are fairly near one another. Unlike the situation at our McMurdo Base where we land aircraft on skids, the Chilean base has a true asphalt airfield. This airfield is only open during the summer and is very limited. It is just a runway with no parking areas and no instrument landing capabilities. Aircraft fly in and have to pick up or leave passengers and cargo and take off right away.

The U.S. has a scientific station a little bit further down the west side of that peninsula, called Palmer Station. The base is essentially open for scientific work about four or five months a year. The National Science Foundation runs it. We fly in scientists at the beginning of the southern summer, in November, and then fly them back out again in March.

The flying is done by the New York Air National Guard, out of Schenectady, which has a lot of experience flying in snowy conditions. It flies C-130s, which are the largest aircraft that can get into that base. They come down in November as one of their training missions and have aircraft there for two weeks or so. Scientists fly commercially as far as Punta Arenas, the southernmost town on the mainland of Chile, and then continue to the Chilean base on the C-130. We also operate two scientific research vessels out of Palmer Station and southern Chile. Those vessels are actually on station all year, I think, and during the winter work the edge of the icecap. So, you fly down to the Chilean base, and then take one of the research vessels for an overnight run down to Palmer Station.

I had an opportunity to take this trip. Timing is chancy. You may be in Punta Arenas a couple days because if the weather isn’t good enough and anticipated to be good enough at the Chilean base for the plane to make the two-hour flight down and make it back, they won’t go. The scientific research vessels are quite nice. The older one was leased from a Norwegian firm and has a Norwegian crew. People would complain about the food, which tended toward boiled potatoes and cod. The other vessel was a new vessel built in Louisiana, which operated under contract from the National Science Foundation. It is quite a fine vessel, which even had a Cajun cook.

The base at Palmer Station is quite small. It only has several buildings with dorm-type sleeping quarters and then common rooms. The scientists study primarily animal and plant life. The krill is a very popular subject of study, as are the various animals that feed off it. Seals, penguins, and lots of birds feed off krill or each other.

Chile actually has a number of remarkable areas. The southern third are fjords and glaciers off the permanent Andes snow cap. Chile has a couple spectacular national parks in the area.

There are also some very good white water rafting rivers, which cause us a little bit of a consular problem. Every year, several people die on the most popular one, the Futaleufu. During my tenure we had a couple of cases where consuls had to go and repatriate bodies. Chile also has what the locals claim to be the southernmost town and the southernmost inhabited area on the globe. Puerto Williams is on the south shore of the Beagle Channel. On the north side of that channel, a little further east, is the Argentine town of Ushuaia, which claims to be the southernmost city in the world.

Puerto Williams is quite a bit smaller. What it is best known for is its little post office. When you visit Puerto Williams, the only stop of interest is the post office where tourists can get postcards stamped as coming from the southernmost town in the world. Around the side of an island a little east of Puerto Williams is Puerto Toro. It is essentially a Chilean naval base, but it has a school and church. It bills itself as the southernmost inhabited area in the world.

“Edmund Hillary autographed New Zealand $5 bills, which has his picture on it”

Josiah Beeman
Ambassador to New Zealand from 1994 to 1999

BEEMAN: Christchurch, New Zealand, was our launching pad for Antarctica so my staff had to do all the negotiating with the government of New Zealand over import questions and licenses. It was a very important manifestation of the U.S. presence in New Zealand because at Christchurch. Before the Navy gave it up, we would have 400 guys in U.S. Navy uniforms down in Antarctica. So that was really one of the highlights of my time there, and of course I got two trips to the South Pole. It was a tough place, a very tough environment, so I didn’t go there once a year to get the sun. Two highlights of my stay in New Zealand – one was the 40th anniversary of the New Zealand Scott Base – so the Prime Minister invited me to go along with him down on the New Zealand plane for this 40th anniversary ceremony. Ed Hillary, who has become a very good friend of ours, was going along us.

The first man to ever climb Mount Everest, and a terrific human being, by the way. So I took Ed Hillary and Jim Bolger, the Prime Minister, to the South Pole on an American plane. That was an incredible experience having Ed there and having all these young Americans who work at the South Pole during the summer, having him autograph New Zealand $5 bills, which has his picture on it.

I told the Prime Minister he made a terrible mistake; he should have put his picture on the $100 bill because all those bills are going out of circulation and they would have made a terrific amount of money out of this. That was a real highlight.

“Some of the best data about global warming is from Antarctica”

Morton R. Dworken, Jr.
Deputy Chief of Mission for Wellington, New Zealand, 1995 to 1998

DWORKEN: [Antarctica] was a special plus about duty in New Zealand. I think I was aware beforehand that there was something called Operation Deep Freeze, but I never realized how much America had invested in the South Pole Station, the station on McMurdo Sound, and the whole range of scientific and strategic activities in which we engaged in Antarctica. It has become even more important these days. Some of the best data about global warming is from the pristine environment in Antarctica. New Zealand had its own station also in McMurdo Sound that they supported as well; they were one of the major participants in Antarctica exploration.

That whole U.S. activity was supported from a base alongside the airport in Christchurch, in the middle of the South Island. The practice was that every year the Ambassador to New Zealand gets two seats on the various scheduled military aircraft that go down to McMurdo and the South Pole as a perk and to recognize that the Ambassador had general influence over that activity. I got one of those seats once, and the PAO and I went down together.

I should explain: During the winter, there are very few people at McMurdo (at right) and even fewer in South Pole Station, but in the Antarctic summer (beginning late in our calendar year and ending in February or early March), there are hundreds and hundreds of scientific and support personnel who flood down to Antarctica. Most of that goes through Christchurch. Most of the aircraft pass through Christchurch as well, because it is a seven-and-a-half or eight-hour flight by C-130 to get there; these are special C-130s that have skis on them.

While there is a Coast Guard icebreaker that goes down once a year, and there is a military contracted naval ship that brings heavy cargo in after that icebreaker arrives, a lot of the cargo work is done by aircraft. At that time, they were C- 141s, the big cargo aircraft, and a lot of C-130s. C-141s could land on a giant ice runway, but the C-130s had to go down first in order to arrange things for those larger flights.

There were only two squadrons of C-130s in the U.S. inventory that had skis and extreme cold weather experience; one was part of the New York Air National Guard, and the other was part of the U.S. Navy out of the U.S. west coast. The New York unit supported Arctic activities, and the Navy aircraft supported Antarctica. The Navy concluded this was uneconomic, and in one of their downsizing and reapportionment operations, they decided to give up this specialty aircraft. Mind you, these specially built C-130s were equipped with skis that had wheels embedded through them, and each ski cost over $1 million. They break from time to time, so it was a big investment.

That changeover from the Navy to the National Science Foundation, along with all of its associated personnel and equipment, and a new contract with the New York Air National Guard to cover both the Arctic and Antarctica led to a massive change in our footprint in Christchurch. This was a downsizing, again, money saving in one sense but also expense shifting.

Part of the reason the PAO [Public Affairs officer] and I went on that orientation trip was to gather information that we could use to describe the changes to the New Zealand government and public. We were concerned that there would be all this employee turbulence, downsizing, and shifting around. We also gave advice on how to make that appear as smooth as possible. In the event, it was a very smooth transition, one of the smoothest I’ve ever seen for that kind of multifaceted change.

A couple of things about Antarctica: It was an amazing trip to an amazing place, and the people who are down there are very special in their willingness to be in this small isolated community. They seemed to have tremendously high morale, very much mission oriented, both civilian and military, and very much imbued with the idea that they are in an environment that needs protection. The emphasis on protection of that environment was fantastic.

Things in that cold an environment last forever, because it is an icebox even in the summertime. A generation ago, we just threw everything away or buried it in the ice, so there were still things there from the original explorations, like the original huts and their contents that [Antarctic explorer Robert] Scott and others had set up [during their ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition]. Now, there is a great recycling effort. I had never seen so much care taken to divide cardboard from regular paper, to divide colored glass from white glass, to divide plastics refuse into different categories, and to separate all that, package and preserve it, and then ship it out.

The South Pole Station, which is mainly a dome partially buried in the snow and ice, was beginning to fail. It started out sitting on top and over time, it had become partially buried and encrusted with ice and snow. It was also deemed insufficient for the exploration and scientific work projected to be done there. So there were initial plans, which later came to pass, for building a new station up on stilts above the ice. Whatever snow that blew against it then would go under and around it rather than pile up.

We stood at the actual South Pole as well as the VIP South Pole for photos. The latter is a candy stripe thing which is right next to the runway, so you can land right alongside it. The C-130 has to keep at least one of its engines running at all times so the oil and petrol don’t freeze up. You run out of the back of the C-130, run over to the ceremonial candy stripe South Pole, get your picture taken, and run back into the airplane, because they don’t stay around very long. We spent the better part of a day there.

Our aircraft left, and another one came in and picked us up later, after briefings and a tour inside the dome. That was fascinating. We also spent, I think, four nights, maybe five nights at McMurdo, including some time with the New Zealanders at their separate station there.

Q: In terms of the American station at McMurdo Sound, there’s a big contract support operation in addition to the scientists, and at the time you were there, the military operators of aircraft were going back and forth, correct?

DWORKEN: That’s correct. There was a large contingent of electricians, construction people, cooks and librarians, but there was also significant clerical and laboratory support to the scientists, and a significant number of scientists. There also were helicopter pilots and crews to get around. We went on a helicopter trip into the Dry Valleys, where we spent part of a day with a scientist. There is no snow there, and living things freeze over and then thaw, but the valleys are dry. There also were experiments planned and underway in terms of drilling, measuring ice cores, and looking at the statistics on warming.

There was also an effort to determine the rate of change of the ice pack. That’s how they know where to put the marker for the actual South Pole, since the marker pole moves during the course of every given year. They have to retrieve it and put it in a different place because the ice pack moves.

Q: What about American tourism, was that going on during the period you were there?

DWORKEN: Yes, but it wasn’t launched from New Zealand; it was from Chile. But I also recall there was in Wellington a New Zealand-led annual effort to reach an agreement with the Brits, Americans, Chileans, and a few others on the numbers of tourists and tour boats that would come during a given time, in an effort to maintain the Antarctica ecology.

As I mentioned, everything is preserved there, but things are very fragile. You can still see those huts of the earlier explorers. [At left, Sir Earnest] Shackleton’s hut, for example, has sealskins on it and in the summer, you can see moisture pooling as the skins begin to thaw, but then they freeze over again. I guess over time they will deteriorate. It has been since the early 1900s, almost a century now, and inside those huts are the original glass jars with the snap tops on them and the little rubber ring sealants. The labels can still be read, but they are fading now….

There is a periodic review of the Antarctic Treaty, which set up a non-exploitative regime for at least 50 years, and there were a variety of treaty regulatory types of activities. There was a strong multinational effort to keep Antarctica separate and “preserved.”

Some countries could no longer pay the high cost for exploration, and closed their stations, but most countries involved in scientific activity are continuing. Because of its polar situation, with an ozone hole generally above, it was open for all kinds of scientific research and measurement that cannot be performed anywhere else in the world. We saw the various sensing arrays that are placed out on the ice. I know from my earlier days in political-military affairs about the impact of solar flares on international communications, both civilian and military, and that we are observing this activity very closely.