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Antarctic Treaty 50th Anniversary - 2009

In 2009, the Antarctic Treaty celebrated its 50th anniversary. What makes the Treaty one of the world’s most successful international agreements, and how does British Antarctic Survey science contribute to its success?

1959. It was the year Fidel Castro’s army rolled victoriously into Havana, Cuba. Luna 3, the Soviet probe, gave humans their first view of the dark side of the Moon. In the UK, the first section of the M1 motorway opened and the first Mini car rolled off the production line; Alaska became the 49th state of the USA and the Barbie doll made her debut on the world’s toy stage.

Fewer people probably know that 1959 also saw the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, yet this unique international agreement has protected Antarctica for the past 50 years. According to Dr Paul Berkman of the Scott Polar Research Institute: “The Antarctic Treaty is a very elegant document. It’s only 14 articles long and yet those 14 articles have effectively managed ten percent of the Earth for peaceful purposes alone for the past 50 years.”

The 12 original signatories — including the UK — decided that under the terms of the Treaty, Antarctica would be devoted to peace and science. Territorial claims would be frozen, research stations would be open to inspection by any Treaty nation, and scientists would work together and share data.

When the Treaty was signed, the world was still recovering from World War II and the US and Soviet Union were locked in cold war. As Dr John Shears, head of environment and information at BAS explains: “The Treaty was agreed at the height of the cold war — there were serious concerns about military conflict and nuclear weapons testing. It seems a long time ago now — the world has changed completely — but those were the key issues of the time, so the Treaty was very forward thinking.”

Appliance of science

What gave the Treaty its impetus then, and continues to sustain it 50 years on, is science. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958 marked the first major scientific research projects in Antarctica and showed that science could bring previously warring nations together. “The most horrific weapons ever used were by the US on Japan and yet they were collaborating in the Antarctic Treaty. The tools that created the opportunity for cooperation among nations… were directly related to science,” Berkman says.

"The Antarctic Treaty is indispensable to the world of science which knows no national or other political boundaries; but it is much more than that. I believe it is a document unique in history which may take its place alongside the Magna Carta and other great symbols of man’s quest for enlightenment and order"
Laurence Gould
Antarctic Treaty architect

The international scientific cooperation fostered by the Treaty has lead to some astonishing discoveries. According to Shears: “The Antarctic Treaty has achieved international science cooperation, the freedom of exchange of people and of scientific data, and instilled a culture in Antarctic scientists of working together which has been incredibly valuable. Many of the discoveries that have come from Antarctica — such as the discovery of the ozone hole by BAS in the 1980s through to more recent research looking at melting glaciers and what’s happening to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — would have been impossible without the Treaty.”

The Treaty is also successful because it’s a process, not just a piece of paper. Each year, Treaty parties gather to discuss the continent’s governance at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), a process that allows the Treaty system to meet new challenges. A new Treaty agreement — the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — came into force in 1982, and during the 1990s, ATCM debated and agreed the Protocol on Environmental Protection — one of the most important additions to the Treaty since 1959.

“In 1959, the environment wasn’t the big issue it is today. Nobody dreamed of the problems of climate change or ozone depletion back then, it was a time of the white heat of technology and people didn't think that humans would have the impact on the planet that we now know we have. The original Treaty didn’t look at environmental protection, but it’s become one of the Treaty’s corner stones,” Shears explains.

Environmental protection

Since coming into force in 1998, the environmental protocol has regulated how BAS — and every other Antarctic operator — works in Antarctica, so BAS plays a pivotal role says Shears: “The environmental protocol has been a sea change in how we protect the Antarctic. Many practices have disappeared completely: now, for example, all the waste from research stations is removed from the Antarctic and we recycle 70–80% of our waste.”

The environmental protocol also protects Antarctic flora and fauna, designates specially protected areas and requires that all activities undergo prior environmental assessment. “Before they go ahead, all projects in Antarctica have to undergo some form of environmental impact assessment. In Europe or North America, these kind of assessments would only be used for major projects like a new power station or oil refinery, but in Antarctica even a small field project needs some form of assessment,” he explains.

John Shears checks Hazadous waste being unloaded from RRS Shackleton at Grimsby docks
Dr John Shears checks hazardous waste being unloaded from RRS Ernest Shackleton at Grimsby docks

Major projects like building new research stations require the most stringent form of assessment, known as Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE), and the CEE that BAS conducted for its new Halley VI research station has raised the bar. The CEE report for the construction of Halley VI and the demolition and removal of Halley V has been acknowledged by the Antarctic Treaty nations as one of the best of its kind, and serves as a model for similar projects by other nations.

As well as its environmental work, BAS science plays a crucial role in shaping debate at ATCM, Shears says: “One of the important principles of the Treaty is to act on the best scientific advice. At BAS, we interact with the Treaty in a number of ways, but the primary way is to act as expert advisers to the Foreign Office, which is the lead UK government department at ATCM. For example, they might want the latest results on climate change or an update on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and BAS provides that.”

At a technical level, too, BAS advice is crucial to the work of ATCM and the Treaty itself. This year, BAS experts are feeding into the most pressing issues ATCM needs to address, including polar shipping, the Antarctic Climate Impact Assessment, and bioprospecting. At the moment, Treaty nations are discussing a new polar shipping code, covering issues such as ice strengthening of vessels and the type of life rafts that should be carried, so BAS ships’ masters and officers are providing invaluable technical advice.

The next 50 years
Antarctic Treaty flags of nations

*** SEE 10010686 FOR UPDATED VERSION ***
Antarctic Treaty flags of nations

And because 2009 marked the end of International Polar Year 2007–2008 (IPY), as well as the Treaty’s 50th anniversary, ATCM discussed IPY’s legacy and looked ahead to the next 50 years. “Just as IGY lead to the Antarctic Treaty, IPY gave another kick start to international cooperation,” says Shears. “Some incredible projects happened during IPY, like Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province Project, so we’re looking at how we can build on IPY and make sure there’s a lasting legacy with enhanced international cooperation and a drive for more long-term environmental monitoring.”

"Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord"
Antarctic Treaty

Berkman thinks the legacy and lessons of the Treaty could be even greater: “Most people don’t know about the Antarctic Treaty. I’d like the average person in the world to know there is an Antarctic Treaty and that it has relevance to their lives. Not because it’s a treaty about a cold and remote region, but because it establishes precedents and strategies relevant to how we can cooperate as a civilization.”

To find out more about the 2009 ATCM, which took place in Baltimore, USA, from April 6–17, visit the ATCM 2009 website.

Antarctic Treaty Fact File
  • The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington, DC in 1959 by 12 states: Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the USA and the UK
  • The Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1962 and covers all areas South of 60°S
  • The UK was the first state to ratify the Antarctic Treaty
  • The Antarctic Treaty contains just 14 articles, yet effectively manages 10% of the Earth’s surface
  • The Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a continent for peace and science, and is one of the world’s most successful international agreements
  • Today, 47 states are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty; the latest signatory is Monaco