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50-year anniversary of Antarctic Treaty

Sitting where I am, at a desk in my own cozy room at Palmer Station, overlooking a magnificent bluish iceberg in the middle of the Antarctic Peninsula, December 1st seems an especially meaningful day: 50 years ago today, 12 nations sat down and signed the Antarctic Treaty, designating this achingly beautiful white continent as one for all humanity, a whole continent devoted to science, not to war or mining. It has worked out well. But now that Antarctica is at the crux of practically all climate change issues, I can’t but hope we continue to protect this amazing world of ice.

It is a bit strange to feel so far from the rest of the world and yet be the center of issues, as I am sure Antarctica will be at the forefront of discussions at the next UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, on December 7th.

Scientists here, however, didn’t seem to ponder too much about the specialness of the day, at least not out loud. Instead, they took advantage of the radiant sunny, windless, downright perfect and hot day, and scrambled on black zodiacs to go visit penguins and whales and elephant seals in the gloriously glassy waters of the Palmer Archipelago. We science writers obliged and followed suit.

3 comments on “50-year anniversary of Antarctic Treaty”

  1. AnimuX says:

    I wish I could agree with your assessment of the ATS. There is a war going on in Antarctica’s waters. The Whale War. As the UN climate change conference gets underway, on December 7th the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will embark on yet another campaign to confront and intervene against Japan’s internationally condemned “research whaling” program.
    Just as the UN will have to deal with the politics of climate science the politics of whaling and Japan’s abuse of the ICRW science exemption will continue in the Southern Ocean. Antarctica is being exploited by commercial, industrial fishing operations that threaten whales and even krill (don’t forget IUU fishing of the threatened Antarctic or Patagonian toothfish). Antarctica is also threatened by industrial pollution’s effects on global temperatures and ocean acidification.
    I honestly hope the science that supports conservation will be recognized for its value and encourage governments to embrace new environmental protections. However, I believe whaling is an example of the failure of international conservation efforts and commercial interests will make climate change treaties just as worthless and loophole ridden as the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Antarctica will not be protected from exploitation. Conflicts over its natural resources will continue.

  2. I guess I was thinking that at least I don’t see a derrick tower for oil extraction, or a city on the continent. In that sense, both the treaty and the harsh climate have worked to keep it that way. As far as whaling, yes, that is certainly an issue.
    Angela S.

  3. AnimuX says:

    Unfortunately, that’s the problem with ocean exploitation and related pollution. People don’t see its effects and as a result don’t realize the impact of unsustainable or harmful business practices and national policies.
    There may not be an oil derrick but there are many old abandoned whaling and research stations still decaying on Antarctica’s shores. There have been shipwrecks like the tourist vessel M/S Explorer that struck ice and went down in 2007. The whaling vessel Nisshin Maru which is an 8,000 tonne industrial floating factory that dumps its whale processing waste over the side and has had several major fires in Antarctic waters (complete with the potential threat of sinking and dumping heavy fuel oil in an area where it effectively can’t be contained or cleaned). Flotsam and debris from passing ships still affects the wildlife there. Some ships and stations even dump their sewage directly into the ocean reportedly (as recently as this year) causing ecoli contamination. Beyond the growing exploitation of edible species there a great deal of damage is being done whether it’s visible or not.
    Also, the first comprehensive Antarctic climate review has been published by SCAR which reveals a host of problems associated with ongoing climate change. It seems the industrial pollution from those cities and industries you’ve mentioned, oceans away from Antarctica, will ultimately doom what hasn’t been directly despoiled.
    (It is not my intent to taint your experience there and I’m sure the view is fantastic.)

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