The Seventh Continent: Antarctica

22.06.2023 - Article

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

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, almost 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. The Helsinki Declaration on Climate Change and the Antarctic adopted at the 2023 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) underscores this connection. For numerous countries Antarctica 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 a special 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 entered into force in 1961. The Federal Republic of Germany acceded 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 however 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. No time limit has been put on the validity of the Antarctic Treaty.

Four follow-on treaties are also part of the Antarctic Treaty system:

  1. the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) of 1972,
  2. the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) of 1980,
  3. the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) which was signed in 1988 but not ratified by any country and thus did not ever enter into force, as well as
  4. the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty of 1991.

The CCAMLR governs fishing quotas in Antarctic waters and aims to create a comprehensive network of marine protected areas around the continent. Based on the Environment Protocol, numerous rules for comprehensively protecting the Antarctic environment have been drawn up and attached to the Protocol as Annexes. To date, five Annexes to the Environment Protocol have entered into force. With the passage of the Act Implementing the Protocol on Environment Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (AIEP) of 1998, these rules were implemented in Germany.

A sixth Annex to the Environment Protocol governing prevention and liability provisions when an environmental emergency is caused (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.

Entirely in keeping with the goals of the founding States, today’s Antarctic Treaty system aims at comprehensive multilateral cooperation to preserve and further explore the continent. In its Paris Declaration of 23 June 2021 marking the 60th anniversary of the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty, the Contracting Parties paid tribute to these goals also with a view to future challenges and underscored the importance and the achievements of the Antarctic Treaty system.

The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings

The Antarctic Treaty steering body is the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) of the Contracting Parties with consultative status, that is, the states 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 if they demonstrate their particular interest in Antarctica by engaging in considerable scientific research. At present, 29 of the 56 Contracting Parties, including Germany, have this status. The consensus principle generally applies at the ATCM, 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 the other relevant ministries. Every year, the ATCM is hosted by a different Contracting Party. Germany last hosted the 44th ATCM entitled From Science via Policy to Protection in 2022.

At the Berlin Antarctica Conference, the Consultative Parties agreed inter alia on focusing even more on the topic of climate change. Based on the 10th report of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research on Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment, the Contracting Parties see urgent need for action to prevent lasting damage to Antarctica and thus to the whole world. At the 45th ATCM held from 29 May to 8 June 2023 in Helsinki, the ATCM and the Environment Committee therefore dedicated a one-day joint session to the topic and adopted the Helsinki Declaration on Climate Change and Antarctica.

The focus was also on concrete steps to identify further locations in Antarctica that require particular protection and to strengthen existing protected zones. Discussions also centred on preserving the habitat of the Emperor penguin and on the increasing number of tourists in Antarctica. Agreement was reached on starting negotiations to draw up comprehensive regulations to govern tourism in Antarctica.

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 activities and contributions are coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung (AWI) in Bremerhaven. The Institute supplies the necessary equipment and logistics and also runs the Neumayer 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 groups from cruise liners, it is nevertheless having an ever increasing impact on the work of the research stations as well as on the sensitive 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 any significant information on the visit to Antarctica has to be passed on to the competent national authority afterwards. 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. A binding international instrument is however not yet in place. The Federal Government is committed to the aim of negotiating such an agreement and will thus play an active role in the negotiation process agreed at the 45th ATCM.

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 an explicit ban on the commercial mining of minerals. At the 45th ATCM in Helsinki, the Contracting Parties adopted a resolution reaffirming this ban and its unlimited application.

This Protocol and its five Annexes currently in force lay down material and procedural regulations for environmentally sound conduct on the seventh 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 thus 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 since 2011 has also been pursuing the goal of ensuring special protection for the Antarctic waters and the ice shelf by creating marine protected areas. 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 for the first time on the demarcation of an extensive marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Currently they are also discussing two proposals submitted by the EU and their member states on designating more comprehensive marine protected areas in Eastern Antarctica (spearheaded by France) and in the Weddell Sea, a biodiverse sea that has largely remained untouched by fishing (submitted by Germany).

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