Antarctic Treaty Environmental Issues Affected

In the past Antarctica has been used with little regard to the consequences on the environment. Whales in the Southern Ocean and seals on the sub-Antarctic islands were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s. On the continent - where only two percent of the land is ice-free - scientific bases, runways and dumps have competed for space with penguin rookeries, seal colonies and moss fields.

Penguins sharing an old fuel dump

Until the 1970s it was a common perception that there was so much "empty" space that human activities would have no impact on Antarctica.

Drums filled with metal waste waiting shipment north

Since then people have realised that Antarctica is not isolated from the rest of the world and has a global impact on ocean currents, weather patterns and migratory animals.

Similarly, there has been a realisation that the rest of the world can affect Antarctica. Researchers discovered the ozone hole, which occurs above Antarctica each spring, and its links with the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). This ozone depletion has also been detected over the Artic. Global warming also has its origins in industrialised countries and could have major consequences for Antarctica (see sheet 2).

The Treaty also aimed to avoid international disputes: the sort which might arise over economically important mineral resources. Although New Zealand suggested in 1975 that Antarctica be declared a world park, many countries considered mineral exploitation in Antarctica inevitable and wanted to establish guidelines that would minimise environmental damage when it occurred.

Discussions on rules to guide mineral development began in 1982 and lasted 6 years. The result was the development of a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activity (CRAMRA). Many countries began research in Antarctica during this period so they could have their say on this convention.

During the period of the discussions public opinion was turning against allowing Antarctica to be used for mining. Environmental groups were promoting the idea of an Antarctic world park and the United Nations voted overwhelmingly for this concept. When it came to the signing of the convention, Australia and then France refused to do so, setting the stage for a document with more emphasis on environmental protection for Antarctica.

The Greenpeace Antarctic Base (with Scott's Expedition base in the foreground)

Following the decision by Australia and France not to sign CRAMRA in 1989, the Treaty parties negotiated the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (also known as the Madrid Protocol) which was agreed to in 1991. This totally banned mining in Antarctica for 50 years and designated Antarctica as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science". It gives comprehensive protection to the Antarctic environment and its ecosystems and maintains the value of the continent as an area for scientific research.

The Protocol emphasises responsible environmental management by requiring environmental impact assessments of all activities and brings together existing environmental recommendations adopted through the Antarctic Treaty system. The key article in the Protocol states that all activities in the treaty area "shall be planned and conducted so as to limit the adverse impacts on the environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems".

The Protocol has 27 articles and five technical annexes. The annexes outline specific rules for the protection of the Antarctic environment. They deal with environmental impact assessment, conservation of flora and fauna, waste disposal, prevention of marine pollution and protected areas.

The environmental impact assessment annex (Annex I) outlines in detail the steps for assessment, provides for public review and comment, the identification and description of predicted impacts and the consideration of alternatives.

Areas of special natural or physical values, historic sites and monuments or special management areas may be designated under the annex on protected areas (Annex V). Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) have been designated to preserve unique natural ecosystems or historic sites or monuments. Management plans are required for ASPAs which may restrict access or the types of activities that can be conducted in the area, eg. plant collecting and driving a vehicle. Permits are required to enter all ASPAs.

Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs) cover sites where additional planning and co-ordination of activities is required, such as at popular tourist landing sites or around Antarctic stations.

The waste disposal annex (Annex III) prohibits some materials from being sent to Antarctica. These include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), non-sterile soil, polystyrene beads used in packaging, and pesticides (except for scientific, medical or hygiene purposes). Wastes such as radioactive material, electrical batteries, liquid or solid fuels and plastics must be removed from Antarctica.

The annex on conservation of flora and fauna (Annex II) controls the interference with native animals or plants and prohibits the introduction of any non-native species to Antarctica.

The prevention of marine pollution annex (Annex IV) aims to reduce the impact of ship operations on Antarctic ecosystems by prohibiting discharge of oil, noxious substances, plastics and all other garbage in the Antarctic Treaty area. Food wastes can only be discharged after maceration (grinding) and must be discharged at least 12 nautical miles from land or ice shelves. Release of untreated sewage is also prohibited near the shore.

Annual reports are required on implementation of the Protocol's requirements and inspections between parties are encouraged. If a country does not comply with the Protocol a dispute settlement procedure has been established. Parties have commenced work on an additional annex (Annex VI) covering liability for environmental damage.

The Protocol itself entered into the force on 14 January 1998 following the signing by the 26 Consultative Treaty Countries.

New Zealand domestic legislation adopting the MAdrid Protocol came into force in February 1995.

By ratifying the Environmental Protocol, New Zealand signalled its commitment to ensuring Antarctic activities comply with its standards. Environmental protection measures are now an integral part of all activities coordinated by Antarctica New Zealand .

An independent environmental audit of Antarctica New Zealand activities was undertaken to assess the level of compliance with the Protocol and to identify areas which could be improved. New Zealand was the first country to have this done and the process has attracted much international interest. Since the audit Antarctica NZ has improved fuel handling and storage, liquid waste management, monitoring and environmental training of staff.

Antarctica New Zealand's Environmental Manager makes sure that all visitors to Scott Base are given a copy of the environmental code of conduct and a handbook containing summaries of the treaty, the Protocol and protected areas.

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