The international legal framework for the Antarctic is the Antarctic Treaty System - which includes the 1959 Antarctic Treaty (originally signed by the 12 countries whose scientists had been active in the area) and related measures, and several associated international instruments. Environmental protection has been a prominent part of the region’s legal framework for decades.
Members of the Committee for Environmental Protection meet in tandem with the ATCM, and direct their advice via reports. The 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (or the CAMLR Convention) applies to the Southern Ocean from the margin of the Antarctic continent up to a latitude of about 45° South in some places. It establishes a regulatory framework that applies to all living marine resources except seals and whales, including finfish, crustaceans (like krill), and mollusks (such as squid). The 25 State Members (plus the European Union) of the CAMLR Commission and its advisory Scientific Committee meet annually - usually in Hobart, Australia.
The Antarctic Treaty applies to all areas below 60° South latitude (the “60th parallel south”), but does not affect the rights granted to states under international law on the high seas within the region. It features four major elements: the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only, the promotion of scientific research and research cooperation among states, the freezing of sovereign claims to the continent and a prohibition against enlarging such claims or asserting new claims, and the prohibition of nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste.
Environmental protection became a cornerstone of the Antarctic Treaty System thanks to the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Also known as the Madrid Protocol, it commits all parties to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and designates Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.
The Madrid Protocol also established the Committee for Environmental Protection - which advises parties on its proper implementation. In addition, the parties can draw on the independent advice of the International Science Council’s Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. The 42 Consultative and 25 Non-Consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty all meet annually at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) to formulate measures, resolutions, and decisions. Only measures are legally binding, while resolutions are designed to be advisory (decisions refer to internal matters).
Antarctic Natural Resources
Challenges extracting resources elsewhere and a warming climate have spurred interest in the region. Three types of natural resource are particularly prevalent in the Antarctic. The first is minerals, oil and gas, the second is marine life including finfish, krill, squid (and to a much lesser extent, whales), and the third includes the natural products and genomic resources found in indigenous biodiversity.
Article 7 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty prohibits any activity related to mineral resources, other than scientific research. Still, several states that are party to the Antarctic Treaty focus a portion of their research in the region on documenting offshore hydrocarbon reserves - and both offshore and land-based mineral resources.
The full local extent of these resources is not known, in part because so little of the bedrock containing them is exposed (more than 99% lies underneath the Antarctic ice sheet), and because the continental shelf seafloor and underlying sediments are only partly explored. One widely-shared misconception is that the Environmental Protocol will expire in 2048. This is not the case, though any Consultative Party to the Antarctic Treaty may, beginning that year, request a review of the operation of the Protocol.
The combined impacts of climate change and fishing on local species are concerning, not least because these species form the basis of a diverse Southern Ocean food web that includes the region’s iconic penguins, albatrosses, seals, and whales. Marine resources, apart from seals and whales, are regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (the CAMLR Convention). The primary species fished locally are Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, Mackerel Icefish, and krill. Recent krill catches are among the highest on record since the 1990s, and interest is growing in Southern Ocean fishery resources.
The CAMLR Convention includes tools to ensure the conservation of marine resources, it struggles to implement some of them - especially marine protected areas. Whaling is regulated through the International Whaling Commission, but has declined markedly in recent decades. Natural products and genomic resources such as pharmaceutically important chemicals, and industrially relevant enzymes, have become the focus of much research in the region, and hundreds of patents have been applied to local natural products. Despite repeated attempts to broach the matter, parties to the Antarctic Treaty have yet to reach an agreement on how to regulate such activity.
Sustainability is a major concern for the future of Antarctica and for the marine life in the surrounding Southern Ocean.
The “Antarctic” is generally considered to include both the continent and much of the surrounding Southern Ocean. The Antarctic Treaty System provides a legal framework for the region, where human activity is mostly limited to scientific research, tourism, and fishing.
As energy/mineral reserves and fishing resources are exhausted or depleted elsewhere and tourist numbers on Antarctica continue to escalate, could the Antarctic Treaty and its accompanying Protocol and CCAMLR be modified or even disregarded to provide for development on the last frontier?
The continent itself is overlaid by an ice sheet that is up to four kilometres thick in places - and is, along with the Southern Ocean and local biodiversity, responding in pronounced ways to climate change. Under business-as-usual emissions scenarios, Antarctic ice sheets will become increasingly unstable and may contribute some 35 centimeters to global sea level rise by 2100 - and potentially much more.
The continent is thought to be rich in minerals including coal and oil as well as precious minerals such as gold and silver. There is also a growing interest from bio prospectors who search for genetic and biochemical resources from flora and fauna on Antarctica. The pressures to exploit Antarctica’s natural resources on land and in the ocean is likely to increase in the future. Should the Treaty be upheld in its current state?
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Scientific research and tourism operations have created new demand, sometimes in concert. Human activity in the Antarctic is limited almost entirely to scientific research, tourism, and fishing in the Southern Ocean. Travel to the region to pursue these activities is either by ship or aircraft, and research (as well as, increasingly, tourism) vessels are typically designed specifically for operations in the area - and, by international law, have to meet certain specifications for operating in icy conditions.
No typical harbor facilities exist, though constructed wharves are found at some scientific stations. Given the growing research and tourism activity, new ships are being delivered regularly for both activities. Intercontinental flights either touch down at blue ice runways in East Antarctica, on a compacted snow runway in the Ross Sea region, or at gravel runways at several locations around the continent.
The largest air field proposed for the continent includes a 2.7-kilometer paved runway and is being planned by Australia for the Vestfold Hills in East Antarctica. Aircraft as large as a C-17 Globemaster III with a 52-meter wingspan is able to land at some runways. Local air travel is mostly limited to smaller, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
No permanent, land-based tourism infrastructure exists in Antarctica, though some field camps can be considered semi-permanent. By contrast, approximately 76 permanent scientific stations can be found along the Antarctic Peninsula, around the fringes of the continent, and inland - including at the South Pole. Their capacities vary widely, from about 1,000 summer staff at McMurdo Station to fewer than eight at some of the smaller facilities. While the overall footprint of these stations is small, it is significant relative to the ice-free ground on the continent - where most biodiversity is found.
One of the major constraints on local research activity is communications bandwidth - including for the transfer of large amounts of data to other continents. This limited bandwidth, and often poor weather conditions, frequently hinder the remote operation of stations and research infrastructure. Vehicle travel from stations to field camps can be by ski-equipped, by wheeled or tracked vehicle, by inflatable rubber boat, or by aircraft. Field camps are widely distributed, and as much as 68% of the continent’s surface has been exposed to human activity by this point. Communications infrastructure is limited, and satellite coverage is partial.
Climate Change Science and the Antarctic
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are critical parts of a global ecosystem increasingly thrown off-kilter by the climate crisis. Antarctica is playing a fundamental role in the global climate crisis. The Southern Ocean has been absorbing as much as 62% of global heat, and about 40% of all the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. These southernmost waters play a key role in the circulation of the ocean currents that influence climate around the world.
Meanwhile Antarctic ice sheets collectively contain enough ice to result in more than 58 metres of sea level rise if they were all to melt under the strain of warmer global temperatures. Changes noted in the Southern Ocean include discernible warming attributable to human activity, declines in the volume of Antarctic “bottom water” important for ocean circulation, and rising acidity. These changes are triggering global effects, and altering expectations for the extent to which future change will accelerate - in the absence of significant emissions reductions. They also affect resource availability in the region, due to the sensitivity of local marine species and food webs to the combination of warming and ocean acidification.
Addressing the ozone hole over Antarctica (which saw its smallest recorded annual peak in 2019 but has since grown in size) and mitigating local impacts of climate change are expected to influence these relationships with other parts of the world. In the terrestrial Antarctic, changes vary across a continent that is larger than the continental US.
Climate variability and change - including the strengthening of the westerly winds and atmospheric variability over the Antarctic Continent itself - have had effects on other continents. Hot and dry extremes in Australia are related to the weakening of the stratospheric polar vortex over Antarctica, for example, and the poleward-shifting westerlies have led to an increase in extreme rainfall over southeast South America.
Across the entire region, more extreme weather events are to be expected, similar to the record temperatures of more than 20°C in the Antarctic Peninsula registered in early 2020. Warming and increasing amounts of rain are some of the changes noted in the Antarctic Peninsula that affect the distribution of biodiversity, while in the eastern parts of the continent a substantial drying effect is impacting local ecosystems.
Antarctic Environmental Risk
Sources of danger to the environmental health of the Antarctic are both global and local. The environmental risk posed to life on land and in the sea in the Antarctic is a consequence not only of human-caused climate change, but also local scientific activity, tourism, and fishing. Greenhouse gas emissions result in human-induced climate change, which in turn is having marked impacts on polar environments.
Specific related risks in the Antarctic include the collapse of ice shelves (the floating extensions of ice sheets), the rapid retreat of major glaciers, and local changes in ice conditions that affect shipping operations and biodiversity. Climate change-related sea level rise due to melting ice sheets also poses an immediate threat.
Local human-caused environmental risk stems predominantly from a few different factors including the accidental introduction of species from other continents which then affect local terrestrial and marine systems, pollution including oil spills caused by marine traffic related to tourism, scientific research, and fishing, and the operation of science-related infrastructure. Species that are not indigenous to the Antarctic have been accidentally introduced to both Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, via pathways of introduction that have included human visitors, construction materials, aviation, and shipping.
Even greater risks have been predicted as the local climate warms and the Antarctic becomes home to growing activity and greater visitor numbers.
While stringent biosecurity protocols can be effective for mitigation, and are increasingly being applied by science programs and tourist operators, pollution from ships and research stations has been recorded around the Antarctic - including heavy metal pollution, persistent organic pollutants, and microplastics.
Terrestrial environments in Antarctica often have very little natural carbon, making even small hydrocarbon spills problematic. Many oil spills have been recorded; the largest to date was caused by the Bahia Paraíso, which sank in 1989 and released 600,000 liters of diesel fuel. While protected by legal requirements concerning fuels and guidelines for responses to hydrocarbon spills, the region is considered high risk because of its remoteness and extreme weather.
Most science-related infrastructure in Antarctica is built on its very limited amount of ice-free land (less than one percent of the continent’s surface). These areas are home to concentrations of biodiversity, and infrastructure-related disturbances have been estimated to impact over half of all of Antarctica’s large, ice-free coastal areas.
Antarctic Ice Sheets and Sea Level
Unmitigated climate change could make Antarctica the source of significant sea-level rise. The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains approximately 70% of the world’s fresh water - and enough ice to potentially raise global sea levels by 58 meters.
In a business-as-usual scenario for climate warming, by the end of this century, Antarctica will likely already have contributed up to 35 centimeters to global sea-level rise (global mean sea level has risen by about 24 centimeters since 1880). When also accounting for expanding, warmer ocean waters and ice melting from elsewhere, the global mean sea level could rise by more than one meter as the 21st century ends.
Sustained global warming beyond 2100 could see the abrupt and irreversible collapse of large parts of Antarctic ice sheets where the bedrock lies below sea level, and multiple meters of global sea level rise impacting coastal regions everywhere. Over the past two decades, ice loss in the region has been centered on glaciers in marine-based areas of West Antarctica, where a warming ocean has led to increased melting beneath ice shelves.
Observations and modeling suggest that unstable glacier retreat in this area may already be underway. Meanwhile, some ice loss in Antarctica as a whole has actually been counteracted by ice gains in coastal East Antarctica, due to increased snowfall. These recorded changes have likely been caused by a combination of natural climate variability, and human-caused climate change - simulations of potential future climate and ice-sheet changes show that the human influence will dominate in the centuries to come.
Understanding how Antarctica has influenced global sea levels in the past gives us insight into future sea level rise. Both ice cores and models of past ice sheets show that during the last interglacial period (about 120,000 years ago), when global mean temperatures were between 1°C and 2°C higher than they are today, sea levels were six to nine meters higher - about four meters of which is attributed to Antarctic Ice Sheet mass loss.
Satellites can yield real-time estimates of continental-scale ice loss, and observations and modeling will be essential for providing government leaders and policy-makers with the accurate sea-level rise estimates they need to develop cost-effective and regionally reliable climate-change planning, as well as mitigation and adaptation strategies. Technological advances in observation and modeling are essential for reducing uncertainty about Antarctica’s potential contribution to future sea-level rise.
Tourism is now responsible for more than 90% of the visitors to the continent every year - according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, more than 55,000 tourists arrived on land in the region in the 2019-2020 season, with the majority coming from the US, China, and Australia (those numbers do not include cruise-only and fly-over visits). The local industry is growing, diversifying, and largely self-regulated. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica has more than doubled in the last decade, as the region has become both more popular and more accessible.
Tourism is highly concentrated in well-known locations along the Antarctic Peninsula and its offshore islands. There is no permanent tourism infrastructure, as most tour operators provide ship-based transport and accommodation. However, many operators revisit the same landing sites and semi-permanent field camps from season to season.
Tourism routes into the region are well-known, typically departing from a few gateway cities in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa. Due to increasing demand for Antarctic tourism, including “deep-field” visits, concerns about its environmental sustainability are mounting. While Antarctica’s pristine environment, biodiversity, and remoteness are key attractions, travel and activity increase the odds of negative human impacts. Those impacts can include the introduction of non-indigenous species to the Antarctic region, the disturbance of local ecosystems and wildlife, and pollution.
The Antarctic tourism industry is, therefore, largely self-organized and self-regulated. Though the Antarctic Treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators provide guidelines designed to mitigate visitor impacts and help schedule landings, these guidelines rely on the good faith, initiative, and adherence of tour operators and individual visitors. Environmental Impact Assessments are key instruments for regulating tourism activity in Antarctica, yet their current use does not capture potential cumulative impacts of tourism across operators, sites, and seasons.
Growing amounts of tourism are expected to contribute to the expansion of the human footprint in Antarctica, as tour operators seek out new sites to provide wilderness experiences for visitors. Antarctic sites are open for visitation, unless otherwise protected under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Developing more sustainable management of the growing Antarctic tourism industry remains a significant governance challenge for the Antarctic Treaty System.