Is Antarctica safe in our hands?

Introduction Despite being the fifth-largest continent (comprising 10% of the total land surface area), Antarctica is the Earth’s last great wilderness. Indeed many argue that it is the only true “wilderness” because it does not, nor has it ever had, an indigenous human population. This is primarily due to its distance from all other continents; its complete encirclement by the Southern Ocean; and its extremely cold climate. Nevertheless, since its discovery in the eighteenth century, 7 countries had made claims upon parts of it. Furthermore, despite the fact that the interior is covered by a thick ice cap (average thickness 2km; maximum 4.5km) and only 2% of the whole being permanently free of ice, these claims took the form of segments (i.e. pie slices) all converging on the geographic South Pole. Given these arbitrary boundaries; the predominantly featureless landscape; and the extremely inhospitable environment, any exploration and exploitation of its underlying mineral resources was likely to give rise to conflict. Although this would appear to presuppose that mineral resources are there to be found (beneath the ice cap or continental shelf), even in the 1970s, what was known about the geology of Antarctica implied that a variety of metals, coal, oil, and gas could be present (Waller 1989: 631). The history and nature of the Antarctic Treaty The Antarctic Treaty (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Treaty’) and the system of governance of the Antarctica it established (i.e. the ATS) were both products of the 1950s. As such, the ATS was initially focussed on political rather than environmental issues. The Treaty itself came about as a result of the co-operation of the 12 nations involved in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58; which included the USA and the former USSR. Therefore, in spite of all the tension caused by the Cold War, the IGY was considered to be a success (Simpson 1957: 356). However, it is likely that basic geography ensured that the Treaty had a good chance of succeeding because neither of the two Cold War superpowers was amongst the 7 nations that had a prior sovereignty claim upon any part of Antarctica (Joyner 1998: 55). All of the above explains the focus of the Treaty upon the benefits of co-operative scientific research (Articles II and III); and the need for political security (Articles I and V regarding de-militarisation and de-nuclearisation respectively). To this end, Article IV effectively suspended all territorial (i.e. sovereignty) claims and/or arguments (particularly those between Argentina, Chile and the UK) in relation to territory in the Antarctic (Rothwell 1998: 76); including permanent ice shelves and the shallow sea bed (i.e. the continental shelf). Consequently, the Treaty did not tackle issues of environmental protection. This gave rise to the need for subsequent agreements such as the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna (1964); the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972); and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctica Marine Living Resources (1982). Finally, after wasting nearly 20 years negotiating the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) in the 1970s and 80s, the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991) came into force in 1998 – and bans all mineral exploration for 50 years. However, rather like the Sir Laurence Olivier’s evil dentist in the classic 1976 film Marathon Man, I am inclined to keep asking, “Is it safe?”; and not just because the Madrid Protocol includes provisions for it to be torn up if enough signatories agree it is time to start exploiting the frozen continent… Furthermore, even more worryingly, the Arctic has no such protection! Despite the fact that denialists insist on claiming that Antarctica is getting colder, the fringes of its ice cap that sit in – or float on – warming seawater are stubbornly refusing to take any notice; as they are melting at unprecedented rates: An excellent article on the website, entitled ‘The Future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: Exploring ice thickness, melting and global climate change’, by Marc Airhart of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin, provides the best summary of what is going on (that I have seen recently). So, whether it be by claiming that ice is not melting, permafrost is not thawing, glaciers are not retreating, oceans are not warming, rising, or acidifying… denialists really ought to stop cherry-picking data to support their fallacious views, and take a good, long, hard look at all of the data and accept what long-term trends clearly show: The planet is warming, to a degree unprecedented in 100s of millions of years, and it is not the Sun that is the primary cause. If they could just open their eyes, take their hands off their ears, and stop shouting “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you!” at all the data, I think they might just be able to discern that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is actually happening! If so, would they kindly like to join with the rest of humanity and help us decide what we are going to do about it? ————– References: Joyner, C. (1998), Governing the Frozen Commons: the Antarctic Treaty Regime and Environmental Protection, Columbia SC, University of South Carolina Press. Rothwell, D (1996), The Polar Regions and the Development of International Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Simpson, J.A. (1957), ‘The International Geophysical Year: A Study of Our Planet’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 13 (10), pp351-56. Waller, D.C. (1989), ‘Death of a Treaty: The Decline and Fall of the Antarctic Minerals Convention’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 22, pp.631-68.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Climate Science, Environment, Scepticism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Is Antarctica safe in our hands?

  1. Pingback: Stop oil exploration in the Arctic | Anthropocene Reality

  2. Donald says:

    In the winter of 2008 alone, the amount of ice surrounding Antarctica was then at the highest level ever measured for that time of the year since satellites first began to monitor it almost thirty years ago. This represents a continuation of the record set the winter before (our summer). You really should do better research 🙂 But is true that there has been a slight rise in temperature, enough to break of a few large shelves and certainly more than enough to give the AGW fanatics an excuse to claim “Global Warming” but …… The Ozone hole has been much larger than usual the last few years allowing for extra solar radiation to affect the continent.


    • Rick_Altman says:

      You cannot seriously posit Patrick Michaels or the CATO Institute as objective and reliable. Any cherry-picked research “findings” they come up with were pre-determined by their ideologically-driven need for AGW to be a hoax. Again, Donald, I am very disappointed in your failure to be objective. Unlike you, these people deny that AGW is taking place. How can you possibly take anything they say seriously?


      • Donald says:

        Here in Australia we are forever getting reports of the ice cover in Antarctica, it’s not my fault you guys don’t look for the info, if I can find the stuff in seconds why not you AGW Fanaticos? 🙂 Scientifically it makes sense, as the heat builds up it will expand from the Equator outwards with the expanding/increasing pressure pushing the colder layers towards the Poles. At the poles the temperatures are bound to drop. “Open your eyes that your ears may hear better” – Said the Wizard of Oz to Rick 🙂


      • Rick_Altman says:

        At the poles the tempeatures are bound to drop“. In your fantasy world maybe, but not predicted by climate models and not happening in reality either. You really do need to stop straining so hard to cherry-pick the data that suits your argument and shouting “La-la-la-I-can’t hear you!” at the data that does not – or else you will end up hurting your back and straining your vocal chords… 🙂


  3. Donald says:

    BY the way, you are absolutely correct about the need to protect Antarctica more than what we do now, I’ve seen pictures of the place which would put humanity to shame.. We tend to leave naught but rubbish behind us, don’t we? 😦


    • pendantry says:

      We do indeed leave a lot of rubbish behind us (pollution is more than just a dirty word). Incidentally, concerning your contention above that “At the poles the temperatures are bound to drop”, Tamino at Open Mind (for one) disagrees with you. He says that “the Arctic is warming so much faster than the globe as a whole”. Why would he say such a thing, if temperatures are ‘bound’ to drop at the poles? It seems there are many people who “really should do better research :)”.


  4. Pingback: Is there an up-side to an ice-free Antarctica? | Anthropocene Reality

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