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COLUMN ONE : Struggling to Protect 'The Ice' : Tourism and even scientific research are threatening Antarctica's pristine beauty. But the push is on to preserve this last untainted laboratory.

April 05, 1990|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANVERS ISLAND, Antarctica — The upturned hull of a sunken Argentine tourist ship has nearly slipped from sight, barely breaking the surface now like one of the playful whales that swim these frigid but plentiful waters.

Yet the somber memories of the wreck last year, and the oil it spilled within sight of a premier U.S. research station, endure as forceful symbols of the hazards posed by the growing human presence in Antarctica.

Although the 315 tourists and crew of the Bahia Paraiso survived and the spill was minor by most standards, the accident gave new impetus to a movement to respect this continent not only as a place of forbidding beauty but also as a fragile reservoir ensuring the Earth's health.

That has meant, in part, cleaning up the unsightly mess that developed in recent decades from Antarctic exploration itself. But more broadly, it has encouraged a changing mentality toward tourism, research methods and exploitation. The broken hulk also has reminded the world of the need to preserve Antarctica as a uniquely shared and still-untainted laboratory for understanding the planet's seas and skies.

The 25 nations that make up the Antarctic Treaty organization are working with renewed energy on tougher rules to govern activities in the region. And some countries are rebelling against an already strict 1988 agreement to govern oil drilling and mineral mining, arguing instead for an outright ban.

The National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic program, is removing the junk heaps that scar its three permanent bases and is hauling shiploads of rubble back north. Even before the Bahia Paraiso sank, an additional $8.3 million was budgeted for environmental and safety projects this year. Cleaner sewer systems are being installed, environmental impact programs are under review and emergency plans for oil spills are being drafted.

"For years, Antarctica was approached in an expeditionary way," said Gary Staffo, recently named as the National Science Foundation's polar safety and environmental officer. "It was seen as a one-time shot: 'We'll go do the mission and get the people back and leave the trash behind.' Certainly that is no longer acceptable--and that is progress. There are greater expectations now."

Bahia Paraiso means Paradise Bay in Spanish, and that would have been an apt name for the place where the ship foundered on rocks on Jan. 28, 1989, spilling about 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the sea.

Elephant seals nuzzle noisily on a rocky island beach, adelie and chinstrap penguins totter about, tiny limpets browse in the tidal basins and swarms of shrimp-like krill bloom in springtime, hearty meals for the whales.

Across the bay, blue-white glacial ice cliffs rise hundreds of feet out of the sea. The silence gives way to explosions as vast slabs break away and slide into the water--the "calving" of icebergs from the ice shelf that covers 98% of the continent and is up to three miles thick near the South Pole.

Above all, Antarctica is a place for science. In recent years, the research has taken on urgency as knowledge emerges of the environmental damage caused by industrial-era pollution and its potential impact on the whole planet.

Other projects take advantage of the still-unspoiled seas and skies, with constant winter nights and crystal summer days, to pursue cutting-edge studies of phenomena such as cosmic rays and radiation belts.

And some scientists are finding a world startlingly abloom in what seems at first such a bleak and lifeless place, fresh proof of the continent's crucial role in the world's ecology.

Researchers David Karl of the University of Hawaii and Mark Huntley of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, for example, are charting a phenomenal mass of life in the Gerlache Strait along the Antarctic Peninsula.

From the pitching deck of the primary U.S. research ship the Polar Duke, Karl sends an electronic pulse into the water, setting off a small explosion. That frees a titanium frame holding a ring of 13 plastic bottles, and the device floats up hundreds of feet to the surface.

All hands scan the choppy waters until Robert H. Rutford, president of the University of Texas at Dallas and a veteran polar hand, spies the yellow buoys astern. The ship's winch painstakingly recovers the experiment. Karl helps pull aboard the frame and its harvest: five months' worth of organic sediment, much of it excrement from luxuriant swarms of krill shellfish.

The "catch" is neatly divided into 11-day samples captured by the computer-driven ring of revolving bottles attached to the bottom of a plastic funnel. Some are near empty, but a couple, recording the height of the "bloom," are nearly full.

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