Posted on February 6, 2015 by Robert Percival
A century ago expeditions to Antarctica, “the last unexplored place on earth,” made Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and Shackleton household names. Today Antarctica’s pristine environment attracts tourists to what is the coldest, windiest, and highest continent on earth. Despite its harsh climate and the massive ice sheet that covers nearly all its land mass, Antarctica is teeming with life, as I discovered on a recent National Geographic expedition there celebrating the centenary of Shackleton’s famous voyage.
Global scientific cooperation during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58 sparked interest in negotiating what became the Antarctic Treaty. Signed in 1959 by the 12 countries that participated in the IGY, the treaty entered into force on June 23, 1961. The treaty, which applies to the area south of 60 degrees south latitude, suspends territorial sovereignty claims made by seven countries. It protects freedom of scientific investigation while subjecting scientific personnel to the jurisdiction of their respective governments. Important protections for Antarctic plants and wildlife were added by the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, adopted as an annex to the treaty in 1964, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, which entered into force in 1978.
When the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated, 60 scientific stations had been established on the continent and surrounding islands. Waste disposal practices at these bases initially were quite haphazard, including at the large U.S. base on McMurdo Sound. The U.S. actually operated a small nuclear power plant at the station between 1962 and 1972, which had to be decommissioned prematurely due to continuing safety issues. A campaign by Greenpeace to expose open dumping of wastes at McMurdo helped spur improved waste disposal practices, particularly after congressmen with oversight authority over the National Science Foundation (NSF) visited the station. In the 1990s, the Environmental Defense Fund won a lawsuit against NSF to block construction of a waste incinerator at McMurdo without an environmental impact statement. The D.C. Circuit held that because Antarctica was not the territory of any sovereign the principle against extraterritorial application of NEPA did not apply.
The most important environmental protections for the continent are embodied in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was adopted in 1991. The Protocol designates the continent as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science” and it imposes strict measures to protect the Antarctic environment, including a ban on all mining. Also in 1991, tour operators formed the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), a private, self-regulating organization that now has more than 100 members. IAATO has developed a strict code of conduct designed to keep Antarctica pristine, to protect Antarctic wildlife, and to require tourists to respect protected areas. This code was observed so strictly on our expedition that we were prohibited from relieving ourselves while on land, a prohibition not applicable to the penguins whose wastes create a pungent smell apparent whenever land is approached. Boots had to be disinfected prior to every landing and clothing was vacuumed to prevent introduction of invasive plants.
The worst environmental disaster in Antarctic history occurred in January 1989 when the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine naval supply ship hit a submerged rock off DeLace Island, spilling 600,000 liters of oil and creating an oil slick that covered 30 square kilometers. In 2009 the International Maritime Organization banned the use of heavy fuel oils by ships in Antarctic waters. This measure has been widely applauded for reducing pollution in Antarctica. It also caused some cruise lines to stop visiting the continent with huge cruise ships, significantly reducing the number of tourists in Antarctic waters. Enforcement of strict measures to protect the Antarctic environment depends crucially on cooperation by many governments and private companies.
The Antarctic environment continues to face challenges, particularly from climate change which has visibly reduced the size of glaciers. But the ban on commercial exploitation of Antarctic resources has preserved a more pristine environment than in northern polar regions where countries and companies are racing to develop oil resources. Shackleton would be proud.