Climate Action

Efforts to save the planet must start with the Antarctic

Penguins come ashore in Neko Harbour, Antarctica, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The ocean surrounding Antarctica contains a distinctive array of marine life. Image: REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Sylvia Earle
Oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, Member of Friends of Ocean Action
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Antarctica

“I am hopeful that Antarctica in its symbolic robe of white will shine forth as a continent of peace as nations working together there in the cause of science set an example of international cooperation.”

These words by US naval officer and polar explorer Richard E. Byrd in 1957 are now inscribed on the Byrd Memorial at the US base McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Two years later, at the height of the Cold War and with the threat of a nuclear holocaust looming large, Antarctica made its place in the history books and became this symbol of international cooperation.

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US came together and dedicated the continent to peace and science through the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. It froze territorial claims, demilitarized the area, established peaceful cooperation and freedom for scientific research.

The Antarctic Treaty and its related instruments are a defining symbol of the power of multilateralism and good governance that are possible to achieve even at moments of heightened political strife.

Many of its principles have been incorporated into the broader body of global governance and law and it paved the way for the development of other international instruments such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that aims for the protection of the continent’s ocean wildlife.

It has also enabled a large amount of multinational research to be carried out that has provided hugely important insights into our changing planet.

Threats to Antarctica Image: WWF

Antarctica is a continent covered with ice and snow. Its ice contains 70% of the planet's fresh water, and the ocean surrounding Antarctica contains a distinctive array of marine life such as corals, crabs, whales, seals and penguins.

Microscopic algae and tiny shrimplike creatures – krill – serve as food for the entire ecosystem. The powerful currents that surge around Antarctica, gather nutrients and regenerate the waters before they spiral off to feed the ocean globally.

While the Southern Ocean may be at the bottom of the planet (from a northern hemisphere perspective), it is very much at its heart. If we are to restore the health of the ocean, and planet, then that is where we must start.

In 2019, it is the 60th anniversary of this historic Antarctic Treaty. In these turbulent times, as in 1959, we are faced with another global emergency – climate crisis and biodiversity destruction.

While Antarctica may seem so vast, mighty and remote, it’s also fragile. The impacts of humans are being felt and it too is on the frontline of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

The warning signs are clear: Antarctic sea ice melt has tripled in the past five years; industrial fishing for krill is threatening wildlife in the region; almost no emperor penguins have hatched at Antarctica’s second biggest breeding ground for the past three years; there’s a heightened risk of invasive species breaching the final frontier for marine biological invasions, due to a 10-fold increase in Antarctic shipping traffic since the 1960s. We need leadership to protect this pristine region.

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From July 1-11, parties will meet at the the XLII Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Prague. This meeting will be an opportunity for Antarctic Treaty members to send a strong message to CCAMLR ahead of its meeting in October on the importance of marine protection action now.

Last year the 25 members (24 countries and the European Union) of Antarctica’s ocean body (CCAMLR) failed to reach consensus on further ocean protection. Three marine protected area proposals are on the table: in The East Antarctic (950,000 km2), the Weddell Sea (1.8 million km2) and the Antarctic Peninsula (450,000 km2).

Progress is being stalled by just a few powerful nations even though all CCAMLR members agreed to develop a comprehensive network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean by 2012. To date, only two MPAs have been created: around the South Orkney Islands in 2009, and the world’s largest marine reserve – the Ross Sea MPA in 2016.

Southern Ocean protection needs to be supercharged. This is the mission our Antarctica2020 group, which is calling for over 7 million km2 of the Southern Ocean to be protected by 2020.

Just 4.8% of our global ocean is currently under protection – of which only 2.2% is fully protected. The science tells us we need to boost ocean protection to at least 30% by 2030. Realising these MPA proposals in the region would give a serious boost to ocean protection and global efforts to combat climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

The governance framework is in place, the scientific imperative is clear, the responsible governments have agreed to set up a network of MPAs in the region. Only political will is standing in the way.

Despite the tremendous tensions at the height of the Cold War in 1959, nations were able to dedicate this area for peace and science. Might the world again come together to work for the enhanced protection of Antarctica for the benefit of all? As never before, there is a awareness of the urgency to do so. Never again will there be a better time to act. It would be a perfect 60th birthday present for Antarctica, and a gift of hope for the future of humankind.

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