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National Poison Centre
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Email: prnnet@usm.my

Poison Control
USM scientists study Antarctica
Source: New Sunday Time, March 23, 2003

AURORA AUSTRALIS, which means  "southern dawn", is a phenomenon associated with the Antarctic, involving the distortion in the earth's magnetic field.

The distortion results in the dark Antarctic skies being magically lighted up in a display that has its parallel in the much better known Aurora Borealis.

Aurora Australia is also the name of the purpose-built research ship that docked in Hobart harbour on March 17, bringing back four Universiti Sains Malaysia researchers from a three-month scientific expedition.

This is the first time Malaysian scientists spent such an extended period on board Aurora Australia, which is owned by Australia, to conduct ecological research.

The Malaysians, who joined a multinational team of researchers, sailed about 15,000 nautical miles, in one of the longest ever scientific expeditions undertaken in the Antarctica and the southern oceans.

Led by Associate Professor Zulfigar Yasin, the USM team comprised three others who are graduate students, two of whom are women.

Though some assert that there is no field of science that can be described as "Antarctic" per se, there are certainly many scientific disciplines that have great relevance to the study of the Antarctica and the surrounding southern seas.

Stephen Martin noted in A history of Antarctica: "Since the first contact with the continent scientists have visited the region seeking to explain the new land and its life."

Scientists are curious how the Antarctic sustains such a diversity of life, from the relatively wanner sub-Antarctic islands to the frozen icecap.

These range from microscopic species, namely diatoms, algae, bacteria and plankton, to the more familiar larger animals such as star­fish, seaweeds, fish, seals and whales, as well as a variety of bird species.

Of particular interest are the shrimp-like krill about "6 to 7 centimetres long, with five pairs of legs and two large eyes" which were the subject of study of the USM team (Poison Control, Jan 19).

The Antarctic is also 'endowed with large amounts of natural resources — coal, copper and deposits of iron and nickel. Traces of gold, silver and mo­lybdenum have also been detected.

Despite the many sea voyages,

Antarctica, dubbed as the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent in the world, remained inaccessible for many years.

The first continental exploration only took place in 1890s. First it was via its northernmost part, the Antarctic peninsula and later through the remote lands of East Antarctica.

The first confirmed landing on East Antarctica was made in 1895 in what is also called Victoria Land. By then a number of expeditions had taken place, some ending in disaster, especially during hostile weather conditions.

In time it led to nations establish­ing territorial claims, anxious to maintain a hold of the continent.

Britain had at one time secretly suggested that the whole of Antarctica be considered part of the British Empire.

Soon, trips were undertaken to fulfill political motives and territorial rivalry set in.

Fortunately in 1948, a suggestion was made to turn Antarctica into a form of trust territory. Eleven years later, in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by a number of countries, and rectified in 1961. More countries have signed the treaty since then.

The treaty places some restrictions on certain activities so that the continent will not be destroyed by greed.

Instead, by emphasising scientific research, hopefully the continent could be collectively looked after through the  spirit of sharing and preserving peace. This is articulated in the articles of the treaty.

In this context, at least in part, it must be recognised that the treaty came about as a result of the moral and persuasive force of scientists.

According to Martin: "Some of the first and most interesting accounts of Antartic phenomenon are from scientists.

"They collected specimens of natural history, recorded their observations and returned home to continue the vital processes of classification and explanation."

It is in this same spirit that the USM scientists joined hands with researchers from other countries on board Aurora Australis.

In this way, we can help pave the way for Malaysia to contribute as an active partner in the Antarctic Treaty.

Thus like the Aurora Australis that lights up the dark night skies, this partnership may be the light that brings greater understanding on how the world is linked through science.

For information, contact The National Poison Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia, tel. 04-6570099, fax: 04-6568417, email: prnnet@prn.usm.my.


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