The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Madrid on 4 October 1991, and entered into force in 1998. The Madrid Protocol, as it has since become known, designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. It is the only international agreement designed to protect an entire continent, and it ensures that all human activity in Antarctica is carefully planned.
Today, such activity ranges from scientific endeavour and exploration to increasing levels of tourism. Any activity associated with the mining of mineral resources is prohibited. The Protocol can only be modified by unanimous agreement of the 29 Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty (including the UK), and the ban on mining activities cannot be removed unless a binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resources activities is in force.
International support for the Protocol was reaffirmed in May 2016 when the Consultative Parties issued “The Santiago Declaration” in Chile.
In November 2016, the protection of the waters around Antarctica was in the spotlight. After five years of negotiation, the Commission of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) agreed to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Seas Region. It will be the largest MPA in the world, and it will help to protect the Ross Sea from the threat of over-fishing. From a UK perspective, the hope is that further large-scale MPA designations around Antarctica should be possible in the future.
The Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP emphasised that the UK has a long a history in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, dating back to 1774 when Captain Cook sailed as far as 71°S, although he did not sight land. It was not until 1820 that a little known Royal Navy Captain, Edward Bransfield finally discovered the continent. Since then, the UK has played an important part in Antarctica’s history, including by playing a lead role in drafting the Madrid Protocol.
Contemporary UK interests are wide-ranging. The British Antarctic Survey operates world class research stations on the continent. The history of Antarctic exploration is protected by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. And the Royal Navy’s ice patrol vessel, HMS Protector, spends part of the year patrolling the waters off Antarctica to ensure compliance with the Protocol and other key provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System. All of these activities are undertaken as part of the UK’s broader commitment to Antarctica and its desire and responsibility to protect the British Antarctic Territory in particular.
There are, however, challenges that still need to be addressed in order to safeguard Antarctica’s future. The most pressing of these is climate change.
Over the second half of the twentieth century, the Antarctic Peninsula was one of the fastest warming regions of the planet with dramatic glacial retreat and ice-shelf collapse, even while others parts of Antarctica appeared able to endure rising global temperatures.
Evidence of the changes under way in Antarctica is not limited to the state of the cryosphere. As Ben Fogle told the audience, the tiny wooden hut used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men as they raced to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1912 still stands on the shores of Ross Island in the Southern Ocean. The hut had been buried by snow and ice until 1956 when it was dug out by American explorers. In the decades since, it has preserved relics, and even smells, from the Scott expedition – some even claim that you can feel the presence of Scott when you enter. Today, the hut, and the history it preserves, is under threat. Melting ice and permafrost around the hut means more moisture in the air, which in turns is damaging the hut and its contents.
Another major challenge is pollution – plastics and heavy metals are being found in Antarctica in ever-increasing volumes.
Growing international support for the Antarctic Treaty System and the expansion of Marine Protected Areas are a source of optimism about the ability of the international community to rally round and deal these outstanding challenges, but it will take an unprecedented level of commitment and action to mitigate the impacts of climate change on both the continent and its surrounding waters. To that end it is worth remembering the UK has made a number of commitments to protecting Antarctica:
Nevertheless, there are certain states that have questioned the principles of the Madrid Protocol as they seek to create new possibilities for mining and fishing in and around Antarctica. H.S.H., the Prince, reminded the audience that the principles underpinning the Madrid Protocol, and the Antarctic Treaty System in general, must continue to be defended and further reinforced. He also argued that sufficient resources must be made available by the international community to ensure key provisions are upheld in practice.
If there was one core message that united our three speakers, it was that despite being a distant and largely unpopulated continent, it is in the interest of all that Antarctica is protected. Ben Fogle suggested we might think of Antarctica as the “crown jewel” of the great wildernesses around the world, and, so, in some measure, the way in which Antarctica is treated reflects on humanity’s relationship with the Earth more generally. H.S.H., the Prince, used the word ‘hubris’ to highlight the excessiveness with which humanity has tended to treat the natural world, and argued it is this excessiveness which needs to be combatted. Moreover, important knowledge gaps remain and it was suggested by H.S.H., the Prince, that greater coordination of the international scientific community is needed to ensure that the important work being done in Antarctica has a requisite impact on the international policy community. Collectively the speakers concluded that what happens in Antarctica, and indeed the Arctic, affects us all, and therefore continues to require our attention.
This briefing paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.
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of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.