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Royal Society Range in late March.
Photo Credit: John Priscu/Antarctic Photo Library
The Royal Society Range of Antarctica bathed in late autumn light during March 2008, during the height of the International Polar Year. The Antarctic Treaty helps protect the continent's environment for peaceful, scientific pursuits.

Antarctic Treaty meeting

Conference of polar experts, diplomats covers topics from IPY to tourism

Scientists, diplomats and others involved in supporting research in Earth’s polar regions converged in Baltimore, Md., this month for the 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting External Non-U.S. government site to discuss topics ranging from climate change to tourism.

The first such meeting hosted in the United States since 1979, the event marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the historic international treaty that preserved the continent for peaceful, scientific pursuits.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton External U.S. government site addressed the session — which included the Arctic Council External Non-U.S. government site for the first time ever — on its opening day, April 6.

“The genius of the Antarctic Treaty External U.S. government site lies in its relevance today,” she told about 400 participants representing nearly 50 countries. “It was written to meet the challenges of an earlier time, but it and its related instruments remain a key tool in our efforts to address an urgent threat of this time, climate change, which has already destabilized communities on every continent, endangered plant and animal species, and jeopardized critical food and water sources.”

The treaty was signed in 1959 by the 12 nations that participated in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site, a scientific campaign of unprecedented discovery. The United States and former Soviet Union both launched the first satellites into space during IGY. Other major IGY accomplishments included the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, a ring of plasma wrapped around the Earth, and confirmation of the plate tectonics theory.

The International Polar Year (IPY) External U.S. government site, coming 50 years after the IGY, officially came to a close last month. A separate ceremony co-hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site and the National Academy of Sciences External Non-U.S. government site celebrated the successes of the IPY, which involved about 60 countries and nearly 200 international projects. [See related story: IPY Legacies.]

Arden Bement
Photo Credit: Patricia Pooladi/ National Academy of Sciences
Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation.

Arden Bement External U.S. government site, director of the NSF, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site and funds Arctic research, said during the IPY clelebration that the data collected between March 2007 and March 2009 will pay scientific dividends for decades to come.

“It may be the next generation of scientists, or even the one after that, that first realizes the full significance of results obtained by scientists in IPY,” he said. One immediate result, he added, will hopefully be more excitement about science in the younger generations. “This may be the impetus for them to become scientists in the years to come.”

David Holland External Non-U.S. government site, director of the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at New York University External Non-U.S. government site, said the discoveries from IPY will help the science community refine forecasts about possible sea level rise. Predictions about how high average sea level may go up by the end of this century vary from about half a meter to double or even triple that amount. Much of the uncertainty comes from the inability of scientific models to account for the melting and retreating ice in Antarctica and Greenland.

“The science isn’t quite there yet. We’re getting there,” said Holland, one of six leading polar scientists to speak during the IPY ceremony on April 6. “I really think with our international partners we can solve this, but the hard part is about the doing … If we decide we want to solve the problem, we can do that.”

The history of the Antarctic Treaty itself is certainly one of perseverance and small miracles, according to Dian Belanger, a historian who wrote a seminal book about the IGY, Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science External Non-U.S. government site.

Seven of the original 12 nations that signed the treaty had territorial claims, Belanger noted during a phone interview. In the final days of negotiations, after about 18 months of discussions, Argentina still balked at the idea of suspending its sovereignty, she said. New Zealand finally resolved the stalemate by suggesting the treaty reflect the model established during the IGY.

The exact words from the treaty in Article II state: “Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end, as applied during the International Geophysical Year, shall continue, subject to the provisions of the present Treaty.”

Noted Belanger, “Nobody forgot their political interests, but science provided a way to work around, even through, them.”

The treaty has grown to include 47 signatory countries, representing two-thirds of the world’s peoples. Treaty members have adopted a number of other agreements over the years, including the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Link to PDF file External Non-U.S. government site in 1980 and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site in 1991.

The latter agreement protects the Antarctic environment through five specific annexes on marine pollution, fauna and flora, environmental impact assessments, waste management and protected areas. It prohibits all activities relating to mineral resources except for scientific research.

“They couldn’t have done that in 1959,” Belanger said of the 50-year ban on mineral exploitation. “But [treaty negotiators] set up the treaty in such a way that they would have treaty meetings every year or two like the one now going on in Baltimore, so they could take up issues that might come up after the fact or that were beyond the capabilities of the diplomats and politicians at the time.”

One of those present-day issues was Antarctic tourism, which has grown tremendously in recent years. In 2007-08, about 46,000 people visited the Antarctic by land or sea, a sevenfold increase since 1992-93, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators External Non-U.S. government site.

Clinton said on April 6 that the United States had submitted a resolution that would place limits on landings from ships carrying large numbers of tourists. “The United States is concerned about the safety of the tourists and the suitability of the ships that make the journey south,” she said.

The resolution comes after a recent spate of tourist ship mishaps around the Antarctic Peninsula. In 2007, a tourist ship carrying 154 passengers and crew struck an iceberg 50 miles off the coast and sank. No one was hurt. During the most recent tourist season, two ships ran aground in unrelated incidents, though both vessels were later able to return to port in Argentina.

Clinton concluded her remarks to the assembled crowd with an upbeat message.

“So, in the spirit of the treaty and in light of the incredible discoveries that took place during the International Polar Year, let us resolve to keep making progress with sharp research and bold action on both ends of our planet, in the south and the north, for the good of our nations and for the people, but mostly for this beautiful planet we currently share and the succeeding generations that should have the same opportunity to enjoy its bounty and its beauty.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs