The 7th continent: Antarctica

25.06.2021 - Article

Antarctica has a major role in the global climate system and marine ecosystems. In more than 40 research stations operating throughout the year scientists work on projects ranging from routine monitoring to basic research.

The continent

Emperor penguins
Emperor penguins © picture-alliance/dpa

Antarctica is the coldest, driest and stormiest of all continents. It is almost forty times as large as Germany and is the only uninhabited continent. Even in summer (from December to February) 99% of Antarctica is covered in ice, up to 5000 metres thick in places. It is regarded as a natural archive of Earth’s natural history and has a decisive influence on the global climate system and the marine ecosystems associated with the Southern Ocean. For numerous countries it serves as an “open-air laboratory”, resulting in the discovery, for instance, of the hole in the ozone layer.

The Antarctic Treaty System

Antarctica is not subject to national sovereignty, but rather to an international treaty system that regulates international relations on the continent and its use by the international community. This system’s foundation stone is the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which Germany joined in 1979. The Antarctic Treaty applies to the area south of 60° South Latitude. It permits use of Antarctica solely for peaceful purposes and explicitly prohibits any activities of a military nature. It guarantees the freedom of scientific research and seeks to promote international cooperation to that end. It also prohibits nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste in Antarctica. The sovereignty claims asserted by seven Contracting Parties (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) to parts of Antarctica are explicitly left open by the Treaty and “frozen” as long as it continues in effect (cf. Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty). Germany has not asserted any territorial claims.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and its five Annexes currently in force were drawn up in 1991 with the aim of comprehensively protecting the Antarctic environment. With the passage of the German Implementing Act of 1998 to this Protocol, its provisions came into effect for Germany.
A sixth Annex on Liability Arising from Environmental Emergencies was adopted in 2005 at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Stockholm. It will enter into force when all the Consultative Parties have implemented it in their countries. Germany completed this implementation in 2017. The Antarctic Treaty System also comprises the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) of 1972 and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) of 1980.

Consultative Meetings

The Antarctic Treaty steering body is the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) of the Contracting Parties with consultative status, that is with the right to vote under Article IX of the Antarctic Treaty. This status is also granted to Contracting Parties which acceded after the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty on 23 June 1961 if they demonstrate their particular interest in Antarctica by engaging in considerable scientific research. At present, 29 of the 54 Contracting Parties, including Germany, have this status. The consensus principle generally applies at ATCMS, that is, decisions are taken only if all Contracting Parties with the right to vote agree to them. German positions are presented by the Federal Foreign Office acting in close consultation and cooperation with other relevant ministries. Every year, the ATCM is hosted by a different Contracting Party. Germany hosted the 16th ATCM in Bonn in 1991 and will hold the conference again from 23 May to 2 June 2022 in Berlin. 

Antarctica conference

The Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, which is based in Buenos Aires, was established at the 26th ATCM in Madrid in 2003 and officially started its work in September 2004. It provides the Antarctic Treaty System with permanent infrastructure, in particular between the annual Consultative Meetings. After heading the Secretariat since 2009, Dr Manfred Reinke, a German scientist, handed over to Albert Lluberas of Uruguay in summer 2017. The ATCMs held since 1961 have adopted more than 250 measures and recommendations, the majority of which are concerned with protecting the Antarctic environment. ATCM agendas are currently dominated by issues relating to further implementation of the Antarctic Protocol on Environmental Protection, the impact of climate change on the Antarctic region, international research cooperation, and regulations and guidelines for tourism in the Region.

Activities in Antarctica

The prime activity carried out in Antarctica is scientific research. In the research stations that are manned all year round, which currently number more than 40, scientists work – in many cases with international colleagues – on a wide variety of projects ranging from routine monitoring to basic research. German research is coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar‑ und Meeresforschung. The Institute supplies the necessary equipment and logistics and also runs the Neumeyer III Station, which was opened in February 2009 and operates all year round, as well as the research ship Polarstern. In addition to traditional research fields such as geology, geophysics, biology and meteorology, there is now an increasing focus on climate change issues. As part of a European project, for instance, ice core drilling is being used to investigate natural climate change over the past 500,000 years. It is hoped this will shed light on what role man-made pollution plays in the climate changes now being recorded and provide a basis for predicting future trends. Scientists are also monitoring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica. These research programmes highlight how crucial the continent is for the global climate.

Another increasingly important use of Antarctica is for tourism. While this is generally in the form of excursions by small groups from cruise liners, it is nevertheless having a growing impact on the work of the research stations as well as the Antarctic environment. In order to protect the environment and research activities, the Protocol on Environmental Protection requires tour operators to have every visit authorised by the competent national authority (in Germany the Federal Environment Agency). The Consultative Parties have also drawn up a post-visit report form on which tour operators are required to notify any relevant information in this connection to the competent national authority. At the 1994 ATCM in Kyoto, the Consultative Parties decided that Antarctic visitors and tour operators should follow strict rules of conduct and other requirements (Guidelines for Tourism) designed to afford maximum protection to animal life, the environment and scientific research in Antarctica.

Protecting Antarctica

The Consultative Parties regard protecting Antarctica and its sensitive ecosystems from environmental damage as a matter of ever greater priority, also in view of Antarctica’s importance for the global climate. For many years, the main focus of concern involved mining activities and their possible impact on the Antarctic environment. The 1988 Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA), which was intended to permit the extraction of minerals under very strict environmental conditions, was not ratified and therefore never entered into force. Instead, the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection introduced a complete ban on the commercial mining of minerals. This Protocol and its five Annexes currently in force lay down material and procedural regulations for environmentally sound conduct on the sixth continent, including a requirement to obtain authorisation for activities of any significance in Antarctica (e.g. research and tourist expeditions), as well as for environmental impact assessments. All German activities in Antarctica now require authorisation from the Federal Environmental Agency (Section 3 of the Act Implementing the Protocol on Environmental Protection). The sixth Annex on Liability Arising from Environmental Emergencies, which was adopted in 2005 but has yet to come into effect, is the first international regulation on preventing and compensating for environmental damage in Antarctica, as well as an important step towards a comprehensive liability regime aimed at protecting the Antarctic environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems. The 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) plays an important role in protecting the Antarctic ecosystem. A new body, the CCAMLR Commission based in Hobart, Australia, has been set up in order to implement and monitor compliance with the Convention. It sets fishing quotas for Antarctic waters, monitors adherence to these quotas and is now also responsible for creating marine protected areas in Antarctic waters and the ice shelf. Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing poses a growing threat to the sensitive ecological balance in Antarctica, jeopardising not only fish stocks but also sea birds, seals and other marine mammals. Time and again, countries bordering the Southern Ocean find and detain ships fishing illegally and confiscate their catch. In the inhospitable and vast Antarctic waters, however, combating IUU fishing effectively and across the board remains a difficult business. In 2016, the CCAMLR States Parties agreed on the demarcation of an extensive marine protected area in the Ross Sea. They are currently also discussing the EU proposal largely drawn up by Germany to delineate a further marine protected area in the Weddell Sea, a biodiverse sea that has largely remained untouched by fishing.

The Antarctic issue in the United Nations General Assembly

Since 2006 “the Antarctic issue” has no longer featured on the United Nations agenda. As the Antarctic Treaty Contracting Parties point out, any member of the United Nations may join the Antarctic Treaty System, whose value and effectiveness have been clearly demonstrated over the years.

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