Monday, May 11, 2009

Will the Antarctic Treaty Continue to Protect Antarctica?

A recent guest editorial in ESA's "Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment" by Sven Thatje at the National Oceanography Center in Southampton and Rich Aronson, at the Florida Institute of Technology ( Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 175-175. ) presents a very simple but compelling question that I think deserves more attention. Simply paraphrased

Can the Antarctic Treaty Protect Antarctica??
About 50 years ago (Dec. 1, 1959) 45 nations signed and officialised the Antarctic treaty which applied protection to ocean and land masses south of 60 degrees latitude. For the reason that Thatje & Aronson quote " the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall not become the scene or objective of international discord".

Since then, the Treaty has been further strengthened and developed by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR). But the authors report and discuss new issues that address future challenges to the Treaty..

Climate change has drastically affected the Southern Ocean. It was once thought that the temperatures and according physiological constraints protected the region from biotic invasion from other oceans. But with global climate change, a whole host of things have begun to change. I have blogged about this here.

Simply put, the warming of the waters makes the Southern Ocean more vulnerable to invasive species as well as faunas from the surrounding area. The unique fauna of Antarctica, of which I have featured here and here are in danger of being exposed to new predators and environmental changes.

The authors urge treaty nations to take steps towards protecting the pristine and unique environment/ecosystem that is found in Antarctica and elaborate on concerns from increasingly more frequent outside environmental threats, such as tourism and the potential for increased biological invasions.

Changes in Political Attitudes Toward Antarctica???
The authors touch on this subject. We have already seen claims by several countries as we have observed the change in Arctic glacial cover.

There are apparently also claims by countries via the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which includes part of the seafloor beneath the Southern Ocean. This brings us to this:
As the world's fossil-fuel crisis deepens and developing economies increase their demand for limited natural resources, Antarctica will become a focus of intensive resource exploitation. It is crucial for the international community to anticipate these developments in order to have policy in place, and we (Thatje & Aronson) propose that the UN take up this issue immediately. Polar ecosystems are among the least disturbed but most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet (Halpern et al., 2008, Science 319: 948). In the end, we are left with the fundamental ethical question: are we willing to risk the last pristine places on Earth??? (emphasis is mine)

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