Special Report

Who Owns Antarctica’s Pristine Oceans?

How humans finally stopped squabbling and protected one of the world’s most pristine marine areas

Marine algae blooms like these in the northern Ross Sea are often vast enough to be visible from space. (Colin Harris / era-images / Alamy )
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Last October, 24 countries agreed to establish the world’s largest world’s biggest protected marine area: the Ross Sea in Antarctica. Sometimes referred to as “the last ocean,” this cold, barren, and seemingly inhospitable region is actually one of the most diversity-rich around. A vibrant sea floor beneath the ice boasts spiders the size of dinner plates, fish with antifreeze in their blood and countless numbers of microscopic krill. Algae blooms in bursts of blue and green that can be seen from space.

Conservationists agree that these surprisingly lively waters make up a critical ecosystem in need of protecting. But until now, the question has been: how? Much like the continent of Antarctica two centuries ago, this remote swath of ocean has long been located in precarious international waters. With no one country officially responsible for its protection, its history has largely been characterized by squabbling, fighting and bickering. Meanwhile, overfishing and climate change began taking their toll.

Last year, a growing sence of urgency finally pushed nations to act. Today conservationists hope that the success of this region, which will remain protected for the next 35 years, will inspire nations to do the same for other key oceans around the world. In this episode of Generation Anthropocene, we trace the polar history of Antarctica's fraught ownership, and how that set the stage for the 2016 agreement that promises to protect this oasis in the ice—for now. 

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