Antarctic Treaty commits to greater protective measures in the face of climate crisis
At the latest Antarctic Treaty, delegates reconfirmed the ban on commercial mining in Antarctica and recognised that Emperor Penguins face extinction risk due to the loss of sea ice and rising global temperatures.
International delegates have reaffirmed their commitments to enhance the protection of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and to take urgent action to combat the devastating effects of climate change.
Delegates from around the world recently gathered in Helsinki, Finland, for the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) where they negotiated and agreed to the Helsinki Declaration on Climate Change and the Antarctic.
For many around the world, Antarctica may feel distant, but it plays a crucial role in the global climate system, including ocean circulation and temperature regulation.
Declining sea ice will have severe consequences (Credit: Steve Allen/Shutterstock)
Additionally, the Southern Ocean is one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks – environments that naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The continent’s declining sea ice is likely to massively disrupt its ability to capture carbon dioxide. As such, the implications of Antarctic change on the rest of the planet are profound.
On a personal note, UKAHT is seeing first-hand the impacts of climate change on our historic huts: high snowfall has caused structural damage; increased rainfall means that our timber structures require more frequent maintenance and care; and meltwater torrents are threatening to erode the foundations of our buildings. Furthermore, repairs at Bransfield House are made much harder by climate change while exhibits inside the museum are suffering from excessive mould.
Rod Downie, who was a member of UKAHT’s 1997/98 and 1999/00 Port Lockroy teams and is currently WWF’s Chief Adviser to the Polar Regions, said:
“Climate change is already having a profound impact on the Antarctic, and this is only expected to get worse. Emperor penguins are especially vulnerable, with the predicted loss of suitable breeding habitat putting them on the slippery slope towards extinction. Urgent action to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C, to protect the waters surrounding Antarctica which are teeming with life, and to designate emperor penguins as Specially Protected Species is essential for both the continent and the planet. As glaciers retreat and sea levels rise, the effects of global warming will be felt far beyond the Antarctic itself.”
What commitments were agreed?
In the Helsinki Declaration, the Parties raised concerns about rising sea levels as a result of irreversible ice-sheet loss and the catastrophic impacts it will have, particularly on people living in low-elevation coastal zones across the globe.
Delegates also reconfirmed their commitment to upholding an indefinite ban on commercial mining in Antarctica, including keeping fossil fuels in the ground and enhancing the protection of the unique wildlife of the region.
One of the species most at risk in the Antarctic is the emperor penguin, one of only two penguin species that live on the Antarctic continent proper (the other being the Adélie).
Emperor penguins (Credit: Vladsilver/Shutterstock)
A study presented to delegates by an international group of scientists and supported by WWF demonstrated that over five years (2018-2022), 42% of emperor penguin colonies (28 of the 66 colonies) likely experienced total or partial breeding failure due to the break-up of fast ice (sea ice which is connected to the land) in at least one year.
The study provides further evidence to Antarctic Treaty parties to support the future designation of emperor penguins as a Specially Protected Species under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty.
What is the Antarctic Treaty?
The Antarctic Treaty came into force on 23 June 1961 after ratification by the twelve countries then active in Antarctic science. It has since been acceded to by many other nations. The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 56. Its objectives are simple yet unique in international relations. Under the Antarctic Treaty System, several international agreements are in place to protect Antarctic wildlife.
Every year the original 12 Parties as well as interested others – known as the Consultative Parties – meet to exchange information and consider the next actions. This forum is the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.
The flags of the original 12 signatories at the Ceremonial South Pole (Credit: Public Domain)
The original 12 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK, the USA and the USSR – all of whom had been active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58,
From 1961 to 1994 the ATCM typically met once every two years, but since 1994, the meetings have occurred annually.
In 2019, the UK, supported by a number of other countries, notified the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) that Emperor penguins were threatened by the loss of their breeding habitat and that further protections should be developed.
Support our work Protect Antarctica's heritage
Every membership and donation we receive helps our expert teams deliver vital conservation work across the heritage sites that we preserve. Without your support, sites of great importance in Antarctica's history could quickly deteriorate, taking with them historic artefacts, tales of scientific advancement and human endeavour that inform how we, as a global community, view and value Antarctica today. With your help, we can continue to conserve this special continent to ensure its protection for years to come.Donate now