THIS MONTH, representatives from 40 nations that are party to the Antarctica Treaty are meeting in Santiago, Chile, to begin work on an international agreement to protect the frozen continent's unique and hauntingly majestic environment.
The meeting culminates a year of international dialogue over whether mining should be allowed in the fragile Antarctic system.
In mid-October, a group of scientists met under the auspices of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in a multidisciplinary project called SEARISE to discuss evidence that vast Antarctic ice sheets are shifting and apparently fragmenting, possibly due to global warming.
Thus, diplomacy and science converge as information struggles to keep pace with the changing political landscape and international decisions on environmental matters.
It is ironic that Antarctica, the continent farthest from human eyes, should be the focus of such intense human interest at this moment. Yet surely this must be a sign of the increasing priority the world has allotted to environmental protection, largely thanks to citizen pressure, but also in the face of mounting government concern.
The cold vault of Antarctica plays a critical role in regulating global climate. Yet, Antarctica has apparently lost 11,000 square miles of ice since the 1970s, according to satellite data. While the retreat of ice shelves and calving of ice sheets could be a random occurrence, it could also be the first true sign of rising ocean levels due to overall temperature increases.
The SEARISE group hopes to gather data, using observation stations in Antarctica, to monitor changes in both Antarctic and Arctic ice.
This scientific effort underscores Antarctica's vital roles -- it is the world's storehouse of cold, as well as a pristine natural laboratory in which changes in the Earth's environment can be studied free of variables introduced by excessive human activity.
Of these activities, mining would be by far the most intrusive.
Recognizing the threat mining could pose, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have recently approved legislative proposals that would ban American citizens from undertaking mining activities in Antarctica pending an international agreement on the matter. Congress thus has added its support for the establishment of strong environmental protections for the entire Antarctic system of air, ocean and ice.
Throughout this year, my father and I have been campaigning for the abandonment of an agreement known as the Wellington Convention aimed at "regulating" Antarctica mining. We support more encompassing approach aimed at environmental protection. Therefore, we truly welcome the initiative of the Congress. Now the ball passes to the State Department, which is assigned the task of representing the U.S. in Santiago.
A number of issues of form and detail will have to be resolved at the Santiago meetings. So far, two major approaches have been suggested.
The first, proposed last year by the French and Australian governments and supported by a number of other nations, calls for a protection "regime" for Antarctica that would establish it as a natural reserve and land of science. France and Australia have also proposed to prohibit mining activities outright.
A second, somewhat weaker approach, proposed by the United States, calls for the development of a "protocol" to the Antarctica Treaty. It would serve as a framework for implementing new environmental protection measures through a series of "annexes" -- or additions -- to the treaty itself. But the U.S. proposal is silent on the issue of mining.
Although the question of whether to allow mining in Antarctica is not on the official agenda of the Santiago meetings, mining remains the paramount issue which must be resolved, and one which cannot be ignored by participants.
The meetings provide a new opportunity for the United States, long a leader in Antarctic scientific research, to also exercise leadership on more political issues regarding the continent. Rather than being seen as "pro-mining," which is currently the case in the international arena because it championed the Wellington Convention, the U.S. has a chance to be seen as irrevocably "pro-environment."
A world speaking with one voice on Antarctica can truly save this final frontier. Santiago is the beginning of this hope.
Jean-Michel Cousteau writes a column on environmental matters.