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Antarctica Treaty

December 1, 2009

Signatories of the Antarctic Treaty meet in Washington this week to mark the 50th anniversary of a treaty protecting Antarctica. But five decades on, the challenges they pledged to face together have changed drastically.

Colony of emporor penguins in Atka Bay
Antarctica faces new and serious problems in 2009Image: Hannes Grobe / Alfred-Wegener-Institut

Antarctica is one of the most unique places on earth. It is the only continent without a native human population, there has never been a war on Antarctica, its environment is fully protected by international law and scientific research, not business nor industry, has priority.

To maintain Antarctica's unique situation, the ice continent requires special consideration from the international community which is why the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) was set up 50 years ago.

This week, the signatories of this treaty will meet in Washington, the place where it was signed half a century ago, to once more address the challenges, opportunities and threats facing the land mass the Antarctic Treaty parties call a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.

Signed on December 1, 1959, the Antarctic Treaty created a framework through which the signatories would regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica. This included a pledge to keep Antarctica free of military activity, to maintain the ice continent as a scientific preserve and to support the freedom of international scientific cooperation within its agreed borders.

A continent preserved for peace and science

The Princess Elisabeth Station is seen in Utsteinen, Antarctica
Scientific research takes priority over all in AntarcticaImage: AP

Ratified three years later by the 12 original nations that were active in Antarctica, the number of Treaty signatories has since expanded to 46. The Treaty is widely recognized as one of the most successful international agreements and remains in force indefinitely.

However, while agreeing that any political or legal differences would not interfere with science, the Antarctica of 2009 faces very different challenges to that of 1959.

Threat of undersea land grab for resources

The fierce international rivalry for oil and minerals which has typified the first decade of the 21st century is adding a strategic threat to that of climate change, another issue which was not as pressing five decades ago. While celebrating the 50th anniversary of the treaty at the Smithsonian Institute this week, the attendees at the 2009 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) will also wrestle with the claims of many nations hoping to benefit from Antarctica's offshore oil, gas and mineral reserves.

Shrinking ice shelves are revealing thousands of square kilometers of sea bed and have set off a new international gold rush at a time when global warming threatens the eco-system of Antarctica, as well as many parts of the world through rising sea levels.

A graphic showing the division of territorial claims to Antarctica

Claims and counter claims by Chile, Argentina and the UK to expand their territorial rights have lead to a complicated legal battle over more than 385,000 square miles of seabed off Antarctica. The wrangle over territorial borders has prompted a host of other nations including Russia, Brazil, France and Spain to assert their own claims.

While applications and investigations into the legality of expanding territories have been launched by competing nations, Greenpeace Europe's Richard Page said that there was no immediate threat from a potential land grab and that laws governing a mineral exploitation ban in the seas around Antarctica still hold.

"The claim by the UK in 2007 to extend the exclusive economic zone of the British Antarctic territory was done to ensure that it met the UN deadline for applications in a bid to keep its options open rather than signal that it was about to go drilling in the Southern ocean," Page told Deutsche Welle.

"Article 7 of the Treaty's Environmental Protocol prohibits mining and despite some nations thinking - erroneously - that the ban expires, it is perpetual unless overturned pursuant to the review clause in 2048 or later, by a majority vote of all signatories at that time, including three quarters of signatories which originally adopted the Protocol," he explained.

Read more about the challenges facing Antarctica

While the ban stands, Antarctica's seas are likely to remain protected - which is good news considering that a turf war over natural resources in the region could also have wider environmental consequences.

"One of the obvious dangers is in an increased risk of accidents and oil spills," Dr. Mike Sparrow from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), told Deutsche Welle. "The Southern Ocean is one of the most pristine and fragile regions on the planet and a major spill would likely have a greater effect near the coast of Antarctica than in other regions of the world. Also, the more people there are visiting the continent the more likely that species from other parts of the world could be inadvertently introduced."

This threatened undersea land grab comes as a consequence of the main challenge facing Antarctica. The Antarctic ice sheet, where most of the world's freshwater is locked up, has experienced one of the highest observed increases in temperature anywhere in the world resulting in significant land loss, and new research suggests this will continue.

Drastic loss of ice

A new study by Nature Geoscience suggests that the East Antarctic ice sheet, once seen as largely unaffected by global warming, has lost billions of tons of ice since 2006 and could boost sea levels in the future. East Antarctica is said to be losing ice at a rate of about 57 billion tons annually. The smaller but less stable Western Antarctic ice sheet has also seen deglaciation on a worrying scale, with about 132 billion tons of ice shearing off into the sea each year.

A Part of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, after it collapsed with staggering rapidity
Sea levels could rise drastically if more ice sheets are lostImage: AP

The fear is that rising global temperatures could cause rapid disintegration of the ice sheet in West Antarctica, releasing enough frozen water to push up the global sea levels by about five meters (16 feet). This is in stark contrast to figures released in 2007 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) which predicted the global ocean watermark would rise 18 to 59 centimeters (7.2 to 23.2 inches) by 2100.

"The original range of sea level rise by 2100 predicted by the last IPCC report was mainly based on thermal expansion of the upper ocean and from glaciers and ice caps, with little contribution from Antarctica or Greenland," Dr. Sparrow said. "However, the models used in this report did not allow for the dynamic response of the ice sheets - when increased warming means that the ice sheets and glaciers actually start to move faster, dumping more ice into the ocean. This is expected to contribute to a predicted total sea level rise of up to 1.4 metres by 2100."

Cutting CO2 emissions may not be enough

Chimneys pumping out vapor
Even if emmissions are cut, Antarctica's ice will still melt

Scientists say that even if CO2 emissions are cut, the disintegration of Antarctic ice sheets could force up sea levels by nearly a meter, enough to render several small island nations in the southern hemisphere inhospitable and cause widespread destruction in other areas of the world.

"There is a certain amount of inertia in the system," said Dr. Sparrow. "Even if all greenhouse gases were cut now we would still see a certain amount of warming and sea level rise because it takes a while for many of the gases to be removed from the atmosphere and because the ocean takes a while to redistribute the heat. But cutting or absorbing somehow the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will at least slow the rate of warming."

Delegates at the 2009 ACTM will be hoping that their combined knowledge and experience will be able to come up with a solution to protect Antarctica for another 50 years - and sooner rather than later.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge