Antarctica is the largest and most pristine wilderness on Earth, covering an area of nearly 14 million square km. It is made inhospitable by extreme cold, a massive permanent ice sheet and floating ice shelves. Less than 0.5% of the continent is ice free.
Scientific research is the major human activity carried out in Antarctica, but there are also significant fisheries and tourist operations. The continent is so important for science because it is an unparalleled natural laboratory for undertaking research of global relevance. But much of the scientific value of Antarctica will be lost if it is allowed to be polluted or significantly disturbed.
What human activities have an impact on the Antarctic environment?
Most human activities have some form of environmental impact. However, in Antarctica the effects of activities taking place there are very much local, not regional or continental. It is activities taking place outside Antarctica which have caused major and lasting impacts. For example, the annual “ozone hole” above Antarctica which is caused by the release, mostly from the industrialized northern hemisphere, of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In October 1996 the area of the hole was nearly 20 million square km.
The only permanent structures of any size in Antarctica are scientific research stations. There are currently over 70 stations with about 4000 scientists and support staff in summer, falling to about 1000 in winter. The largest UK research station is Rothera, which currently has a complement of around 130 people in summer and 20 in winter. The “footprint” of these stations is small; at Rothera it is 3 km².
How is the Antarctic environment protected?
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was adopted in 1991 by the Antarctic Treaty nations. It provides for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment, and sets out tightly drawn rules governing human activities there. The most important obligations the Protocol imposes are:
- Antarctica is designated as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”
- Mineral activities are prohibited for at least 50 years, except for scientific minerals research
- All activities are to be conducted so as to limit adverse environmental impacts.
The Annexes to the Protocol lay down tough and mandatory regulations for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), waste disposal, conservation of flora and fauna, preventing marine pollution, the protection of special areas and liability for environmental damage.
The UK has enacted domestic legislation to enforce the provisions of the Protocol through the Antarctic Act 1994. This legislation introduces a very tough environmental protection regime with which the British Antarctic Survey must comply. Thirty-two Antarctic Treaty nations have ratified the Protocol which, since January 1998, has the full force of international law.
How does the British Antarctic Survey ensure its research activities do not damage the Antarctic environment?
The general environmental policy of the British Antarctic Survey is to carry out a programme of first class science with the minimum of environmental impact. Concern for the environment has been translated from policy into real action in Antarctica through:
- Development of a four-person Antarctic Environmental Office team by the British Antarctic Survey;
- Routine removal of all hazardous waste and general rubbish from UK stations and ships for proper disposal outside of Antarctica;
- Environmental assessment of all new scientific and building projects.
Important environmental challenges for the British Antarctic Survey to address:
- Completion of the refurbishment or clean-up of abandoned UK stations, including the total removal of some bases;
- Development of continental scale environmental monitoring protocols;
- Assessment of the cumulative impact of activities, particularly at major research stations and sites frequently visited by tourists.
Scientists and support staff from British Antarctic Survey and those of other national programmes, will continue to work in Antarctica in a sustainable way. As the local residents they have first-hand knowledge of Antarctica, realise its global importance as a wilderness region and unpolluted natural laboratory and are committed to the environmental protection of the continent.