The All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions hosted the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London on 2-3 December 2019.
Parliamentarians were invited from the 54 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty and to discuss the future of the ‘White Continent’. The Assembly aimed to highlight the importance of Antarctica to the understanding of our planet, and provided an opportunity for parliamentarians, rather than governments, to learn more about Antarctica and press their legislatures to support and prioritise the work of the Treaty.
Parliamentarians and delegates representing 18 countries gathered in London to debate the effects of climate change on Antarctica, as well as the global implications for sea level rise. An historic consensus statement (attached at the end of this document) signed by all 19 parliamentary delegates stated that, as a group of parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties they:
‘Note with concern the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which highlights the profound effects of climate change on Antarctica’s ecosystems and the potentially catastrophic effects of Antarctic ice loss on global sea level’
Visit www.antarcticparliamentarians.com to see the session slides and find out more about this historic event.
This report summarises the presentations delivered by a panel of expert speakers from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Norway and the UK.
It is hoped that this is the first Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly of many to come. The Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians is to be congratulated for its very useful work, but until now there was no equivalent for the Antarctic. It is therefore gratifying to welcome today a wide group of delegates from the signatory countries to the Antarctic Treaty, as well as members of the wider polar community in the UK. It is particularly noteworthy that nation states which differ in their domestic agendas are gathered in this room, showing that science and soft diplomacy present a unique opportunity to bring together disparate nations, unified by their interest in Antarctica and a desire to uphold the Antarctic Treaty.
The presence of the Minister of State for the Polar Regions indicates the UK government’s approval of this assembly’s endeavour, and the Prime Minister and Sir David Attenborough both send their apologies and best wishes for a successful outcome. At the conclusion of the assembly, we aim to issue a final consensus statement on behalf of all the parliamentarians attending today.
Yesterday marked 60 years since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, a treaty that committed its 12 founding signatories to preserving the entire continent for peaceful and scientific purposes. Since then, it has grown to encompass 54 signatories and has evolved into a comprehensive system of agreements, with the focus shifting decisively in favour of environmental protection.
The United Kingdom remains fully committed to the Antarctic Treaty System and continues to make a major contribution. Over the years, the UK has pushed climate change onto the agenda, worked with the tourism industry to develop the first guidelines for tourists, led the way in limiting the threat of invasion by non-native species, and improving environmental impact assessments. Notwithstanding pride in the UK’s Antarctic achievements, the reality is that cooperation is crucial in Antarctica. It is too remote, too hostile, too unforgiving not to collaborate. Crucially, it is also too globally important.
The Antarctic is an incredible laboratory for studying space weather, meteorites, geology, microbiology and understanding the impact of climate change. It was where the British Antarctic Survey first discovered the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s and today Antarctica is a canary in the coal mine warning us of the speed and scale of sea level rise. Around the world, the implications of climate change cannot be ignored and one country can’t hope to understand its impacts alone. As the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow next year, it is clear that international cooperation is vital and that time is of the essence. Collaboration between the UK, USA, Korea, Germany and Sweden in studying the melting West Antarctic ice sheet at Thwaites Glacier is a current example of this.
The 200th anniversary of the discovery of the Antarctic provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the devastating consequences of past failures to act, with thoughtless exploitation resulting in some seal and whale populations being almost completely wiped out. The UK made a decisive move from exploitation to protection over the course of the 20th century, and many international agreements have enshrined this in law. But there are still some who would advocate for greater exploitation of Antarctica, and it is important to stand firm against such attempts to weaken the Treaty.
Parliamentarians have an important role to play and the APPG Polar Regions has worked to raise the profile of polar issues in parliament and beyond. Both current UK Antarctic Acts which implement the provisions of the Treaty System were steered through parliament not by government, but by backbenchers. This illustrates both the influence of parliamentarians, and the strength of feeling across parties on the issue of Antarctica.
It is hoped that discussions at this APA meeting will forge new partnerships and that parliamentarians will return home inspired to promote Antarctica in their own parliaments as well. If Antarctica can appear on the top billing of government agendas and debate can be generated about enforcing Treaty agreements, legislation can be passed that will bring them into force sooner.
These international partnerships are required to protect and preserve the Antarctic, not just for today, not just for the continent of Antarctica, not just for the countries that are directly involved, but for the good of all, long into the future and for generations to come.
February 1819 saw the first recorded sighting of Antarctica by British mariner William Smith. He returned the following October and landed on what are now known as the South Shetland Islands. The following year the Russian Fabian Bellinghausen, the Brit Edward Bransfield (the naval officer who accompanied William Smith’s second trip), and Nathaniel Palmer from the United States all sighted the continent. The discovery of the continent led to the growth of whaling and sealing in the Antarctic, and following the commercial activities came Amundsen and Scott.
In the period that followed, various nations laid claims to the territory, beginning with the United Kingdom in 1908. The Soviet Union and the United States, the superpowers at the time, did not make claims. They didn’t recognise it as belonging to anyone and maintained their right to reserve the entire continent. This was the position in the 1950s with overlapping claims, some claims part undefined, and with the least accessible parts remaining unclaimed (see map below).
This uncertain position led to tension, however a resolution to the complex situation would be found because of the scientific drive to study the Antarctic. In 1959, 12 countries (the seven you see on the map above, plus the US and Russia, South Africa, Belgium and Japan) came together in Washington to sign the Antarctic Treaty.
Containing only 14 articles, the Treaty is remarkably short and only deals with the territorial issue. No action undertaken by any of the parties forces territorial sovereignty (but equally these claims were not denied), and it also demilitarises Antarctica. The fundamental aim was to reserve the Antarctic for peace and science and the continent is unique in remaining free from conflict since the Treaty was signed.
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resource (CCAMLR) was agreed in the 1980s and is still in force. During the 1980s, the global awareness of environmental issues shifted, with the dynamic shifted from exploiting to protecting the environment. This resulted in the
Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which prohibited all commercial mineral exploitation and set Antarctica up as a natural reserve. CCAMLR currently has 26 members and convenes every year in Hobart, Australia, to discuss the conservation of the Southern Ocean. It focusses on all species that live in the Antarctic and the sustainability of food chains, eg protecting krill. In 2016 the area around the Ross Sea became the largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world and there are ongoing debates about future areas. Approximately 50 vessels fish in the Southern Ocean so, although they are large vessels, it is still a highly precautionary, well-managed space.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection works to prevent human vectors from bringing foreign species into the Antarctic. There are already flies and grasses in areas where humans are living and the worst-case scenario would be the introduction of a species such as rats, since local animals have no natural predators. A Protocol pollution prevention agreement from 2005 is still yet to be enforced as, 14 years later, not every country has implemented it into their domestic law. This is an example of how agreements can be reached by officials at meetings, but if parliaments do not ratify them, they will not come into effect.
Tourism is another challenge that is managed by the Protocol, with 50,000 tourists currently visiting Antarctica each year. Recently the number of operators building new ships has increased and it is anticipated that the number of ships may double, allowing them to carry up to 100,000 passengers. All visitors to the continent must demonstrate that they have search and rescue and contingency plans. As members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), all cruise ships operating around Antarctica agree to work together if a member is in distress. Rules stipulate that a maximum of 100 passengers can alight on shore and tourists cannot go within 15m of a seal. There is no consensus against infrastructure for Antarctic tourism, but no country has agreed that a hotel, for example, would be appropriate due to its long-term environmental impact on the continent. The increased ease of flying into Antarctica, coupled with visitors in yachts, are the major tourism challenges of the future. [Read more about the challenges of Antarctic tourism in Dr Daniela Sampaio’s session below]
The Treaty was reviewed after 30 years, and there is no future review planned. The Environmental Protection Protocol has a very complex agreement of review which effectively means it too has no end date. Fifty years after it came into force (ie in 2048), it can be amended with a 75% majority vote, rather than requiring a consensus. But amendments can only be made to the prohibition on mineral exploitation if they have a binding legal regime – which necessitates consensus.
The global impact of Antarctic climate change and what it means for us - Professor Tim Naish, Antarctic Research Centre, New Zealand & Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director, British Antarctic Survey, UK
Scientists have only recently realised that Antarctic science has a direct impact on the rest of the globe. Previously, they were studying and exploring to gain an understanding of Antarctic systems, but now it’s becoming clear that Antarctica is affecting us all. They’ve found that the continent responds to climate change, but it also creates and amplifies it.
Scientists have been looking to the past to discern whether this Antarctic melting is part of a natural, cyclical process or whether it is a consequence of human activity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded with 100% certainty that the human influence on the climate system is clear - it is as close as possible to an incontrovertible fact in science.
But, because this research is very new, the IPCC targets from the Paris Agreement don’t account for the impact of melting Antarctic ice sheets at all. Achieving the current target of the Paris Agreement would result in 50cm of sea level rise and this cannot be avoided as the heat is already in the ocean. But computer model studies that include the Antarctic ice sheet melt show an extra 40cm of sea level rise on the high emission pathway, and one study estimates a total of 2m of global sea level rise by 2100, with up to 1m of that coming from Antarctica. This means that even the most ambitious targets for reduced carbon emissions may not be enough to prevent a global climate catastrophe.
Several nations have been drilling into the Antarctic ice sheets to find evidence of past climates and CO₂ levels, dating back hundreds of thousands of years. As the snow falls in Antarctica, it traps the atmosphere from that time between the snow crystals. These gradually become compressed and the air is trapped as little bubbles in the ice. Some of these bubbles may be up to 800,000 years old and Antarctica is the only place on Earth that this atmosphere has been preserved. Glaciologists slice up the ice cores to date them, extract the air from the gas bubbles and can then measure the historic CO₂ levels and the temperature of the air. Professor Dame Jane Francis says that, alarmingly, over the past 800,000 years the CO₂ level in the air has never risen above 300 parts per million, but we are now at 412 parts per million.
Antarctica’s ice sheets contain 70% of the world’s fresh water and if they melted completely, global sea levels would rise by 60m and all the ice on Earth would be gone. Melting in Antarctica presents two main dangers: dramatic global sea level rise, and it is also thought that it could have a direct impact on the climate.
The Southern Ocean is part of the global ocean conveyor whose temperature network determines how heat and cold are spread around the planet. Cold, dense, salty water (known as bottom water) drops down from the Antarctic continent and flows along the bottom of the world’s oceans, linking with other streams eg the Gulf Stream, and currents of different temperatures to form the ocean conveyor. Prof Francis says that changes to the source of the cold, dense bottom water coming from Antarctica will affect ocean currents and circulation all around the world, potentially resulting in extreme and abrupt climate change. As an example, over 12,000–13,000 years ago, New York froze over. The world was naturally warming out of an ice age and the large amount of fresh water entering the ocean stopped the Gulf Stream, plunging the northern hemisphere back into an ice age. Prof Naish says that, while there isn’t enough ice in Greenland to produce that effect now, the meltwater would certainly slow down and change ocean circulation in a way that would have a dramatic effect on the climate.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the Earth has warmed by 1°C and is now the warmest it has been in 100,000 years, with 2019 looking to be the hottest year in history. All of this warming should mean the Earth was 36°C warmer, but the oceans have absorbed the heat, along with 25% of the CO₂. Scientists are not sure how much heat the ocean can absorb, or how it draws CO₂ from the atmosphere, but the majority of that heat is now sitting in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic, nibbling away at the edges of the ice sheets.
For the past 10,000 years CO₂ levels have been stable, the climate has been stable, and civilisations have flourished. Around the 1850s mankind began using coal, oil and gas for energy and there has since been a 40% increase in CO₂ levels – we are now in uncharted territory for human civilisation. Ice cores show that 300 million years ago the West Antarctic Ice Sheet disappeared completely. If 400 parts per million of CO₂ are left in the atmosphere for decades and even centuries, all the ice sheets will melt and global sea levels will rise by 20m. Prof Tim Naish warns that this will happen over the next 20 years if we don’t alter our emissions.
One third of sea level rise comes from the ocean expanding as it heats up, and a quarter is from melting glaciers in the Himalayas, Andes and the European Alps which, Prof Naish says, will all be gone in 100 years’ time, resulting in 50cm of global sea level rise, if we continue at our current rate of emissions. However, it is the polar ice sheets that will become the dominant contributors to sea level rise in the coming decades. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits below sea level in a big bowl, and warm water is now flowing beneath it, melting the ice from below. If the heart of the ice sheet is affected, once the melting starts it cannot be stopped and that ice sheet alone will add 5m to global sea level rise. Scientists studying the Thwaites Glacier region are unsure at this stage whether the process has started but, according to Prof Naish, the indications are not positive.
The ice shelves are critical as they help to block up the ice, keeping it on land. The Larsen B ice shelf - an area the size of Wales – broke up in 2002 and disappeared within a couple of months. The removal of the ice shelf barrier caused the ice to slide off the land at a rate that was ten times faster than before. The ice shelves are the handrails holding back the ice sheets and once the handrails disappear, it could trigger an unstoppable loss of the ice sheet for many centuries to come.
Global sea level rise has accelerated in the last 30 years and is now rising at a rate of 3.5mm per year. However, sea levels are not rising evenly across the globe, the heat is causing the ocean to expand in some parts faster than others and levels are rising five times faster in areas such as South East Asia and the South Pacific islands. Prof Naish says that these regions are inhabited by large populations of developing nations who were not responsible for putting the CO₂ in the atmosphere, but are at the frontline of climate change. He warns that large-scale migration and displacement of people should be expected from these areas.
Melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, perhaps counterintuitively, will result in the northern hemisphere - Boston, New York and London - receiving 30% more than the global average sea level rise. This is because of the gravitational pull of the ice in the southern hemisphere. Once the weight of ice bearing down on the land has gone, the gravitational pull is weaker and the ocean relaxes away from the coastline, causing local sea levels to drop. The drop in the southern hemisphere will cause a significant rise in the northern hemisphere which means that if the Antarctic ice sheets melt, the UK will be directly affected. The map below shows the projected level of coastal inundation by 2050 and its effect on London.
So how are we measuring up against the Paris Agreement targets? Added up, the pledges put on the table in Paris still result in a world that is 3°C warmer, and the actions currently undertaken by nations will result in 3.5°C of global warming. That is the worst-case scenario. At the current rate of emissions, the world will be 1.5°C warmer in 10–15 years and 2°C warmer within 20–25 years. New Zealand and the EU have produced a 15% reduction on the 1990 carbon emissions level, while the UK and Ireland have seen a 30% reduction. These projections suggest the UK should be carbon neutral by 2050, however the move away from coal gave the UK a big boost at the beginning, so similarly drastic measures will be required to maintain that level of reduction and remain on target for 2050. Individually we can help; take public transport, limit flying, eat less meat etc, but the timeframe, pace, scale and magnitude of the threat require leadership of institutions and governments that will give us the mechanisms to transform at the speed that is required.
Prof Naish says that 2 billion people who live near the coast and a further 2 billion people that rely on fresh water from the glaciers in the Himalayas, will be directly affected by climate change before the end of the century, if emissions are not controlled. Given the uncertainty over achieving the Paris Agreement target, humans need to adapt to climate change and plan for the sea level rise that is coming - 30cm by mid-century, 50cm by 2100 and potentially up to 2m if the Antarctic ice sheets also melt.
How can leaders, parliamentarians, the Antarctic Treaty System and its member nations address this climate emergency? Prof Naish says that it’s right to celebrate the success of the Treaty System, but until now it has looked inwards and focused on its own interests, maybe it’s now time to look more broadly at the role of Antarctica in these urgent global issues. He says: “The science makes it clear that this is, absolutely, an emergency. The people are now listening and time is critical in addressing the biggest challenge of our time: climate change and its impact on humanity.”
The Antarctic continent is largely covered in ice - less than 1% is ice free – so Antarctic life on land is, by comparison with the tropics, quite impoverished. Perhaps from a global biodiversity perspective the poles aren’t that important, but some recent research by US scientists has transformed our understanding of how important these regions are. With new genomic techniques and by revisiting old museum collections, they discovered that the contribution of the Antarctic isn’t in numbers of fish, but in its role as an engine for making new species.
Observing microbiomes transforms the perception of life in Antarctica. We know from research that in the deep ocean a process called chemosynthesis takes place. In the absence of light, bacteria use chemicals to make sugars and energy, and thus create the basis of strange and unusual ecosystems in the sea. From work in the Antarctic, scientists recently discovered a third way of making energy: microbes in the Antarctic scavenge some of the rarest gases in the atmosphere to turn them into energy to produce life. They are able to extract hydrogen (1 part per million) and carbon monoxide (1 part per 10 million) and, with a new chemical process, make energy.
But the area is undergoing change and when conditions warm up, life grows faster. When sea ice is added or taken away, it changes the light conditions and the seasonality of photosynthesis. Adding huge amounts of CO₂ into the ocean acidifies it, but what does that impact look like?
A lot of the science appears in the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) and the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, but there are some key examples that demonstrate the effects of the changes. Krill forms the basis for much of the Antarctic ecosystem and, although we are unsure what happened to the krill in the East Antarctic, it is clear that in the Scotia Arc region they are moving southwards and this has to be effecting change in the region. Life has winners and losers, some species benefit and others don’t. Adélie penguins, which are more reliant on sea ice and krill, are declining in the peninsula region, as are chinstrap penguins. But Gentoo penguins, preferring open water and eating fish, are doing well and moving into the area.
On the French island of Île aux Cochons there has been significant change in the king penguin population. Since the 1980s, the colony of king penguins has shrunk by more than half and we have no idea what is driving that decline. In the Antarctic, satellite remote sensing shows that there are thousands of iconic emperor penguins which are almost entirely dependent on sea ice, but the sea ice, and consequently the emperors, are increasingly under threat. If nothing is done about climate change, 80% of emperor penguins will be gone by 2100. But there’s still time to mitigate this - if 2°C of warming occurs the loss will only be 31%, and if the 1.5°C target is attained there will perhaps only be 19% of penguin loss.
With a warming world, we are making life the same everywhere, but the great thing about life is that it is different everywhere. In East Antarctica there are some very special mosses that live in wet conditions. They only live in the Antarctic and are important to the ecosystem. As the area has been drying, the Antarctic specialists have been dying and have been replaced by species that also grow elsewhere. We are turning a specialist ecosystem into a general system.
As the Antarctic Peninsula is getting warmer and wetter, species from elsewhere are arriving – bluegrass, springtails and midges – in a process of biological homogenisation. Looking at sub-Antarctic islands that are a bit warmer and have been populated by humans for longer, we see flowering weeds like dandelions appearing and rodents, which on some islands have now eaten the majority of invertebrate food. When the rodents run out of food they must adapt, so mice have learnt to eat albatross. The birds are naïve to mouse predation and, as a consequence, albatross chicks are being eaten alive by mice. Although much has been done to improve biosecurity, especially through the Environmental Protocol’s Committee for Environmental Protection, arrivals and establishments remain a major concern.
Marine protected areas have proven very effective globally, but, as the oceans warm, many species will move south in the Southern Hemisphere and we must ensure that these protected areas remain efficacious. Moreover, as a consequence of ocean warming and cryosphere change over the next hundred years, carbon and phosphate levels will decline across the world and models suggest that fisheries will decline by 20% globally, and by 60% in the North Atlantic. Fisheries currently take the big fish first, but a warming sea causes fish to get smaller and small fish aren’t as productive as big ones so there is a reduction in the quantity of fish available as a result of these two factors. If we enforce no take areas and keep the big fish, we can get a bigger result in terms of available protein but, if we cap warming at the 1.5°C target, we can avoid such a dramatic reduction occurring altogether.
Why should the Antarctic, the success of the Treaty and the science behind it, affect people, with their daily lives to worry about? At the moment, 50% of the world’s population live in cities and, by 2050, this figure will rise to 70%. Scientists have recently revised the number of people affected by sea level rise upwards (regardless of the impact of the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets). Satellite data has been used to measure the height of land, and therefore the impact of rising waters. However, until recently, the satellites read the top of the trees and buildings which resulted in an error of a couple of metres. That error has now been corrected and so instead of an expected 250 million people exposed annually to flooding by 2050, the estimates have been revised to 340 million. This is an enormous and very significant change, brought about by new scientific understanding and better technology.
If we see 50cm of sea level rise – or even 1m – where will people go and what will happen? Areas that we have set aside for wildlife will be inundated and areas will be eroded from a large number of national parks. Agricultural areas will be also be inundated, leaving only protected areas for use. International migration is often in the spotlight, but the changing climate will create more domestic migration, the economic consequences of which are often hidden.
So what is the solution? Can we geoengineer a way out of the crisis: by using space mirrors to reflect the sun; distributing particles in the atmosphere, or engineering clouds? Big experiments like this can go horribly wrong - solar radiation management could produce unintended consequences. Nobody knows what would happen if a rogue state undertook stratospheric particle injection. It is dangerous to be a technological optimist and hope that it will save us.
Carbon capture is factored into achieving the Paris Agreement targets and it will be good if the technology evolves and develops as part of the solution, but we cannot rely on it - it’s no silver bullet. Carbon capture and storage is turning out to be very difficult to scale up and, although we should not stop trying to sequester it, scaling the process will not keep up with our rate of emissions. Carbon capture and space mirrors are a long way off, so they are not the answer, and none of these schemes tackle ocean acidification and coral reef death. As a last resort, if we had to pick between geoengineering and nuclear power, perhaps we understand small scale nuclear enough that it might work, but we must work instead on developing renewables - a scientific area that is changing incredibly quickly.
The way forward is clear; the science has been clear for some time. We must reach net zero carbon emissions. This cannot be done only by people who drive less and eat less meat. It requires concerted government, business and civil society intervention, collaboration and assistance. My message is that, although it is a bit late, there is still something to be done. Even if we miss targets, every kilo of carbon kept in the ground is still a win. This isn’t a simple solution - it is simple to say and very difficult to implement in complex economies - but it must be implemented.
Given the context at the heart of the Cold War, there was intense speculation about what the 12 parties really wanted from the Antarctic when they negotiated the Antarctic Treaty in October 1959. Back then, no one could anticipate that 50,000 tourists would be visiting, no one was talking about climate change or mineral resources. There was discussion to be had about mineral resources, everyone knew that they existed, onshore and offshore, but the parties wisely chose not to talk about it explicitly. Considering the geopolitics at the time, it’s remarkable that an agreement was achieved.
The International Geophysical Year (IYG) was an international scientific project that took place in 1957-8. It was a period of intense scientific investigation around the world, but Antarctica took centre stage in the research. The IYG promoted science as an opportunity for diplomatic encounter, for friendship and peaceful cooperation. Antarctic science in 1957–8 provided something powerful: the idea that science and scientific investigation could not be held back by geopolitical division and schism and to do good science, you had to be able to roam all over the Antarctic.
The map above shows the locations of scientific stations in Antarctica, locations chosen for both scientific and non-scientific reasons. Much of the science from around the world occurs in the part of the Antarctic where the states have the greatest interest. There is nothing wrong with lines and zones - they can be really helpful. But if we are to take seriously what we have heard from scientists, we need more zones, more Marine Protected Areas around Antarctica. Yet we are facing the real possibility that, due to global food security, the Southern Ocean is set to face more pressures than ever before. Just imagine a world in which 10–12 billion people are having to think seriously about food security. The paradox is that, for better or worse, the Antarctic is becoming ever more globalised.
Through the Environmental Protocol, the Treaty has provided a robust framework to protect Antarctica, but can we find a scheme to future proof it?
The Antarctic continent is huge - 14 million square km, surrounded by a vast ocean. Its environment is unique and supports many aspects of global importance, from its fundamental role in the Earth's climate machinery and impact on future sea level rise, to being a key player in the context of food security and as a source of organisms with potential biotechnological applications.
Antarctica is a pristine natural laboratory for all scientific disciplines and human activity in Antarctica has risen dramatically over the last decade, putting extra pressure on the environment. Today’s activity is mostly related to scientific research and tourism. In the last 20 years, numbers have risen from 12,000 tourists landing on the continent, to potentially 60,000 in the coming season. Most of this activity occurs in the peninsular area which has the most wildlife. There are also around 65 research stations, spread all over the continent and both tourism and research are expanding their operating areas. With this increase comes the growth in accompanying logistics: ships, planes, helicopters, stations, drones, vehicles and autonomous submarine craft.
Pollution is a rising concern and long-range transported pollutants have been registered at a number of air monitoring stations. Present levels do not pose an immediate threat, but the rising number of vehicles increases the risk of fuel spills and other emergencies that could have an environmental impact. Antarctica is not free of long-range transported plastic either, and activity on the continent adds to this burden. Formally protecting areas of particular value or importance is a way of safeguarding key areas that shape the Antarctic environment and the Parties have so far designated 72 Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. In addition, the Committee for Environmental Protection has a long and proud history of making guidelines to ensure activities are carried out in an environmentally sensitive manner, by both scientists and tourists. But guidelines must be followed up with good practice on the ground – be it boot washing to avoid the introduction of non-native species, or checklists for cleaning aircraft.
Most important is the continuing need for knowledge to ensure that the most efficient and evidence-based actions are implemented. There are many areas that haven’t yet been explored, and a lot that is unknown about the continent. Scientists need to understand how it works to predict how each impact will affect the system in the future. This knowledge must also be made accessible to facilitate quick and easy evidence-based decision-making. The Antarctic Environment Portal aims to make science available to the decision-makers and ensure that the general public has access to information and an understanding of the system. Mankind will need to work globally and on all levels to future-proof the Antarctic.
The Treaty, of course, has been scrutinised by scholarship and faces criticism on a number of fronts. Firstly, there is the gap between propositions and outcomes due to the decision-making process being slow - it works by consensus and can take time to get everyone on board. There is also the issue of decisions being watered-down. When parties with differing, sometimes antagonistic, views reflect on the same text, it has to be edited (and therefore diluted) until everyone can agree, sometimes meaning it loses any clear direction and action.
Tourism is the main non-governmental activity in Antarctica and tourist activity is as old as the Treaty, beginning with cruise ships and increasingly moving towards flights. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was established in 1991 with seven founding companies, and its aims were formulated around the requirements of the Environmental Protection Protocol, ie safe, environmentally responsible operations that minimise the physical impact on the Antarctic. Today IAATO has 109 active members and most of the tourism activity in Antarctica is handled by them. They also advise the Treaty, recommending how tourism activities should take place eg how many people can land on the continent, the ratio of expedition leaders to tourists, the level of staff experience required etc.
The recent rapid growth in Antarctic tourism presents challenges - how do you balance the needs of tourism with the core values of the Treaty? Initially tourism activities were low risk and mainly involved the contemplation of Antarctica which was easy to reconcile with environmental protection. But the range of activities has diversified – can activities such as skiing, climbing and snowboarding still be compatible with the core values of the Treaty? Treaty partners have agreed
measures for the management of tourism but these are not in force yet; insurance and contingency plans, as well as the number of landing persons are still pending approval. IAATO has tried to impose some of these measures on their tour operators even before ratification, which demonstrates the gap between the speed of governmental decision-making and the growth of tourism.
Tour operators are adamant that national governments need to establish domestic legislation for adopted measures that are not yet in force - otherwise IAATO is innocuous. It is also believed that the current regulations will not cope with the future growth and diversification of tourism activities. The Treaty has been a robust regime for the last 60 years, the core values are still shared values, but tourism is an ingrained activity that cannot be avoided or ignored, and discussion is needed so that a mutually supportive outcome can be achieved.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) is a diplomatic anomaly as it’s not attached to a larger government body. It has been independent since its inception in the International Geophysical Year (IYG) 1957–8, and became an official observer to the Antarctic Treaty in 1987. This independence makes it a special vehicle for science diplomacy.
The first example of its force for good is in the area of scientific exchange. At the first SCAR planning meeting there were tensions between the US and USSR about where to place their research stations. To alleviate tensions, in the spirit of compromise, it was agreed that the US would send a scientist to a Soviet station, and this was reciprocated. Arguably, the most important scientific research during the IGY was in the realm of meteorology. A US station established “Weather Central” which collated all weather reports to build an accurate vision of what was happening to the weather in the southern hemisphere. The USSR sent a scientist there and, in the spirit of the exchange, agreed to hand over decades of Soviet data from other stations, including those in the northern hemisphere.
This allowed the US to build a much clearer picture of worldwide weather maps. In the years that followed, despite rising Cold War tensions, the exchange of scientists continued and in the early 1960s, there was even an increase in scientific exchange. Some might argue that this was for espionage, but it could be taken as a sign of ongoing political goodwill in a unique place that is the exception to the general rule.
The second positive influence of SCAR was the establishment of the International Antarctic Analysis Centre (IAAC) in 1959, which aimed to continue collating data from the southern hemisphere after the IGY had ended. Data reports from Antarctica, South America and South Africa were available within six hours of initial observations. This laid the groundwork for the World Weather Watch Programme - the project that moved weather reporting from a national to an inter-governmental resource that required extensive international collaboration. However, the IAAC’s role (and SCAR’s contribution) in coordinating international research at the height of geopolitical tension has often been overlooked in meteorological history.
SCAR is a vehicle for scientific diplomacy and has been integral to improving relations between the UN and the Antarctic Treaty. During the 1980s, the Antarctic was raised at the UN General Assembly over and over again, in particular the legitimacy of the Treaty system, and whether its system of governance represented the last outpost of colonialism. SCAR provided the science that underpinned the Treaty and it was given observer status, which legitimatised all the work that had been supporting Antarctic decision-making for decades. SCAR could also be seen to have played a role in the Arctic - the International Arctic Science Committee was created in 1990, aiming to mirror SCAR’s actions in the Arctic. The challenges in the two areas are very different, but the Fourth International Polar Year in 2008 saw record levels of collaboration between scientists at both poles.
SCAR has shown that science plays a crucial role in fostering political goodwill. The history of scientific collaboration in the Antarctic showcases what can be achieved if we act together, not only scientifically but politically as well.
This is the first parliamentary conference about Antarctica, there is a draft statement on the table. What is the most important thing that we parliamentarians can do?
Prof Naish: The Treaty is set up, and SCAR is functioning well in coordinating the scientific community. The Treaty moves slowly and time is short, so parliamentarians can help achieve the aims of the Treaty by helping its legislation move through government.
Prof Chown: The science is clear. We have ignored it for some time and are now in difficulty, so the faster we can act and the faster we can help people to act, the better. As parliamentarians you are responsible for your constituents, these are the people you need to convince, those looking towards you for leadership and support. You must strengthen the government’s work; parliamentarians and scientists must work together to provide information that will convince people that difficult measures will have to be undertaken, together.
Birgit Njaastad: We need more knowledge to protect the Antarctic. Parliamentarians should use their influence to encourage scientists to get more from the Antarctic. It is a huge challenge to gather enough evidence to convince decision makers and the public to move forward on Antarctic -and global - issues.
Dr Sampaio: Governance is a machine with different wheels working at different levels, the Treaty decisions don’t necessarily mean that things happen. Progress only occurs when parliamentarians undertake the day-to-day policy making and make it a concrete reality for everyone. The Treaty shows us the direction, but parliamentarians are key to putting it into practice.
Prof Dodds: In 1959 when the delegates came away with an agreement, they had made a lot of painful compromises over six weeks. Consensus is now seen as the lowest common denominator, but in 1959 consensus was an apex to aspire to – an extraordinary achievement. Perhaps the parliamentarians of today should channel the spirit of the 1959 meeting.
Scroll down to view the signed conference declaration…
We, as a group of parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties, gathered at the inaugural Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London on 2-3 December:
Recognise the global importance of the Antarctic Treaty System, comprising the Antarctic Treaty and its Protocol on Environmental Protection, which designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science; and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which provides for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources;
Note with concern the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which highlights the profound effects of climate change on Antarctica’s ecosystems and the potentially catastrophic effects of Antarctic ice loss on global sea level;
Encourage the continued and strengthened contribution of all scientific investigation in, from, and about Antarctica to the better understanding of our world and the implications of climate change and other environmental changes;
Commit ourselves to upholding the Antarctic Treaty System and its key objectives: to preserve the continent for peace and science; prevent mineral exploitation and measures of a military nature; promote scientific endeavour and research;
comprehensively protect the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems; and conserve Antarctic and Southern Ocean marine living resources;
Recommit ourselves to supporting our Governments with regard to the full implementation of the Antarctic Treaty, including to expedite the entry into force of measures made under the Antarctic Treaty, and
Recognise that national legislatures, alongside governments, international organisations, the private sector and civil society all have an important role to play in promoting the conservation and protection of Antarctica, including the Southern Ocean.
1. Work towards establishing the Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly on a biennial basis:
a. Parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties are invited to participate, and Parliamentarians from other countries, representatives from non-governmental organisations, and other experts wishing to support the actions of the Assembly are invited to observe the Assembly; and
b. The Assembly will be hosted by agreement among participating parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties, subject to further discussions, and alternating between the Southern and Northern hemispheres.
2. Urge the Antarctic Treaty Parties and Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources actively to support and, as appropriate, prioritise their efforts to:
a. Protect and conserve the Antarctic environment including by:
i. Continuing international efforts, through relevant forums, to address issues arising from activities outside the Antarctic region that adversely impact on the Antarctic environment;
ii. Ensuring robust Environmental Impact Assessment processes are conducted for all activities in Antarctica, in accordance with Annex I of the Protocol on Environmental Protection and that environmental impacts are mitigated and minimised as far as practicable;
iii. Reinforcing international cooperation on pollution issues, including plastics, that affect the Antarctic environment;
iv. Encouraging work to further strengthen the interaction and synergies within the Antarctic Treaty System, to ensure that the clear connectivity between ocean and land in Antarctica is appropriately addressed;
v. Addressing the effects of climate change on Antarctic marine biodiversity and marine conservation, including ecosystem-based fisheries management;
vi. Promoting effective establishment, management and monitoring of a systematic network of Antarctic specially protected areas;
vii. Enhancing the management and protection of Antarctic heritage;
viii. Encouraging the exchange of knowledge and best practice among Antarctic Treaty Parties;
ix. Urging those countries that have not yet ratified Annex VI to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty relating to environmental liability to do so; and
x. Ensuring effective national engagement in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
b. Promote and support international scientific collaboration, including to:
i. Facilitate the detection, assessment, and predictions of the rate of change in Antarctica in response to human activities and climate change, and the consequential effects of these changes on the Antarctic ecosystem and the rest of the world;
ii. Enhance the scientific knowledge of Antarctic biodiversity to be used for the conservation and management of Antarctic ecosystems;
iii. Encourage further coordinated efforts in expanding and maintaining observation efforts in Antarctica, including the Southern Ocean, recognising the role that integrated and sustained observations play in answering key scientific questions, from predicting sea level rise to understanding ecosystem response to environmental change;
iv. Facilitate the efficient collection and sharing of scientific information and encourage work to increase data comparability;
v. Undertake and support science that will inform the effective protection and conservation of Antarctica; and
vi. Promote the designation of a fifth International Polar Year.
c. Ensure effective management of activities in Antarctica, including by:
i. Encouraging the further establishment of a representative system of Marine Protected Areas;
ii. Enhancing the efforts of logistics operators to cooperate in order to reduce the environmental impact of scientific and non-governmental activities;
iii. Ensuring sustainable fishing practices and a responsible fishing industry, in order to minimise impacts on non-target species and, in particular, to avoid sea-bird and marine mammal by-catch; and to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities;
iv. Noting the anticipated continued growth in tourism and any adverse environmental impact that some activities may have;
v. to ensure that tourism is conducted strictly in a safe, environmentally responsible manner, including through the implementation of all tourism-related Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting Measures; and
vi. Continuing to enhance search and rescue cooperation and facilitating the improvement of hydrographic charting and navigation systems in Antarctic waters, promoting coordinated efforts and data sharing among national hydrographic institutions.
3. Encourage our parliaments to adopt, where appropriate, additional national legislation contributing to the full and effective implementation of the Antarctic Treaty System.
4. Encourage all parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties to endorse and support this statement.
James Gray, UK
The Rt Hon Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, UK Generoso Maraia MP, Italy
Senator Massimo Vittorio Berutti, Italy Senator Patricia Bovey, Canada
Mélissa Hanus MP, Belgium
Jean-Marc Delizée MP, Belgium
Chen Lifeng MP, China
Hubert Julien-Lafferière MP, France
Jacques Maire MP, France
Eirik Sivertsen MP, Norway
Andrew Bayly MP, New Zealand Congressman Vitor Hugo, Brazil
Keith Pitt MP, Australia
Warren Snowdon MP, Australia
First Deputy Speaker Åsa Lindestam, Sweden Hamza Dag MP, Turkey
Rumeysa Kadak MP, Turkey
Roman Hryschuk MP, Ukraine