The recent successes and failures of research teams in the exploration of subglacial lakes on the Antarctic continent have been fascinating for a number of reasons. There are three different teams currently in the news, all identified by their nationalities – US, British and Russian. Their respective teams are working on three lake sites: Lake Vostok (Russia), Lake Whillans (US), and Lake Ellsworth (UK). The goal is to explore what, if any, life might exist under the Antarctic’s subglacial extreme and isolated conditions.
This is basic research, i.e. research initially carried out for non-commercial purposes for the sake of fundamental knowledge itself. Information gained from these expeditions could shed light on how life developed on earth, how it might develop elsewhere (those potential lakes on Jupiter’s moons?), how the climate has changed and might change, and so on.
Media coverage likes to portray the national research teams as racing against one another, and I am sure they are in a competition for glory, but also for the funding that comes with recognition and being first. The three teams are doing lake research during the same Antarctic summer on a continent that has an entirely non-native human population of 1000-5000 people. Most if not all of these researchers surely cross paths from time to time on the cold continent as well as at various conferences. They must share their findings and innovations on a regular basis.
I would love to see media reports of how, on the one continent that has no official government, and which is administered under an international treaty that bars any military activity or mining, nationalities also fade into the background and scientific collaboration is at the forefront. It might be a more accurate reflection of how we truly gain knowledge through research and discussion.
But then, that would mean laying aside the thinking that promotes the kind of claims staked on the map above. Staking territory is what we do, I suppose, whether it’s built on ice, or earth, or knowledge.
UK: British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
Russia: Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI)
US: United States Antarctic Program (USAP)