Thoughts of coldness come quickly to my mind while enduring the heat and humidity of a Nebraska Summer. At times, the radically cold continent of Antarctica becomes the subject of my daydreams.
The southern land of the midnight Sun is an utterly fascinating part of our planet. The land and ocean to the South of the 60th parallel is some of the coldest and most starkly beautiful to be found on Earth. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have also been receiving increased scientific concern regarding global climate change. Even politically, this place on Earth is an anomoly.
The part of the World south of 60-degrees latitude has been organized as an international political entity. The entire continent of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is a zone of peace that is reserved exclusively for peaceful purposes. It is the only part of our world that bans, outright, all military activity, weapons testing, nuclear explosions, and disposal of radioactive waste. There is an absolute, universal right of on-site inspection of all camps, stations, and installations to ensure compliance with international regulations regarding Antarctica.
After the second world war there was an increase in research activity in and around Antarctica. As a focus of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, twelve countries that had already been heavily involved in exploration and research activity, there, decided to create a formal institution to enable long-term peaceful international cooperation for the Antarctic region.
An international treaty committee finalized an official document that was signed on December 1, 1959. The official signatories were the original twelve countries doing the research work. They were: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States. The treaty went into force on June 23, 1961. The entity is called The Antarctic Treaty System.
Many areas on the continent have been given special protection, above and beyond what are present in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, as a whole. Additional guidelines apply to all countries and non-governmental organizations.
Most noteworthy of the specially protected areas is the South Pole, and the area immediately surrounding it. Antarctica is the only continent on Earth that has no aboriginal peoples, there are no nations, provinces, states, or cities on the continent. There are seven nations that have claimed territory in Antarctica, but these are not officially recognized by the international community. Because the Antarctic Treaty System forbids military measures of any sort, there is no way to enforce or dispute any claims.
The original, 1959 version, of the Antarctic Treaty didn’t address all possible activities in the region. Provisions were made to allow for future circumstances and needs.
Agreements were later made to protect animal and plant life in the Antarctic area. There was a convention on regulation of mineral resource activities signed in 1988, but, noteworthy, this agreement is not in force. Fortunately all proposed Antarctic activities are required to undergo an environmental impact assessment.
Nothing can escape change, especially any that happen when humans become active within an ecosystem. Of short term concern are, climate change impacts. We’ve seen glacier and ice melt increases making the news, recently. There will be other major threats to the marine systems due to ocean acidification and pollution.
The Antarctic Treaty System is worried about present and future resource use, invasive alien species, habitat alteration, and more pollution. There are bound to be some bureaucratic challenges to and within the Treaty System, too.
There is concern about expanded research and tourism activities. There is also the possiblity of permanent human settlements and resource extraction. It will take sober, deliberate international cooperation to maintain conservation of Antarctica and its management. We can only hope that the Antarctic Treaty System is up to the tasks.
The Blue Jay of Happiness takes an excerpt from a vintage exploration advertisement. “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”