Antarctica's Moment of Opportunity in the Climate Crisis

In a recent field visit to the mysterious frozen continent and meetings with a variety of stakeholders, I learned that Antarctica could surprisingly become a beacon of hope in the climate crisis. Could we spark a new age of constructive exploration and science diplomacy?
Published in Sustainability
Antarctica's Moment of Opportunity in the Climate Crisis

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Perhaps the most apocalyptic scenarios around the global impact of climate change pertain to the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. The continent of superlatives that is often labeled as the coldest, windiest, driest but also "wettest" land mass on Earth, contains over 70% of the planet's freshwater in its mammoth ice cap. Although the most recent detailed models of Antarctic hydrology and climate change impacts, going up to the year 2350, do not envisage a complete melting, there are major concerns from even a modest change in ice cover (specially of the East Antarctic ice sheet) and its impact on precipitation patterns. 

Heritage Sites

A neglected aspect of the impact of climate change on Antarctica is the impact on cultural heritage sites, particularly on the Antarctic peninsula which has the highest concentration of bases on the continent and more than 200 years of intermittent human habitation. Currently there is a study underway over the next two years to assess these impacts sponsored by the UK, Norway, New Zealand and Australia. Temperatures on the Antarctic peninsula are rising fast and according to one study from Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center could on average go up by 1.5 degrees by 2044.  Most Antarctic Heritage sites are on the coast of the continent and there is going to be considerable disruption for cycles of localized advancing of seawater and isostatic rebound of the terrain over the coming several decades.

In 2021 Lulea University conducted the first major study on the impact of climate change on Antarctic heritage. They focused on sites associated with first Swedish Antarctic expedition 1901–1903, led by Otto Nordenskjöld. The study found that the sites were all under extreme threat due to melting of the ice and higher humidity. The team also produced a documentary on the research on the Antarctic peninsula. 

As I learned from conversations with staff of The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, who run and maintain the base at Port Lockroy and are also custodians of five other bases on the continent, increasingly wet weather has caused considerable damage to heritage sites. Penguin colonies have migrated to base locations in search of nesting grounds as well. Despite these threats, climate change could also bring forth more attention from the general public to Antarctica, either through physical or virtual tourism.

Impacts and Benefits of Human Presence

The impact of black carbon from tourist cruise ships and heating at research stations remains a paramount concern for triggering a cascade of ice melting scenarios. Nevertheless, if such impacts can be managed with a transition to gas and hydrogen fuels, access to the Antarctic in turn could create incentives for conservation. The climate crisis also creates an opportunity for various Antarctic Heritage organizations to engage more directly with the international research community, and thereby expedite conservation efforts. 

The Vernadsky base on the Antarctic peninsula provides an intriguing legacy that could provide further linkage between science and heritage. It was one of the bases where the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole was first researched and led to the only international environmental treaty ratified by all UN member states and affiliated entities to protect the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Originally a British base, it was handed over to the Ukrainian government in 1996. They chose to name it after one of the leading figures of modern systems ecology – Vladmir Vernadsky, who was among the first thinkers to suggest the notion of a “biosphere.”

UNESCO's role

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) manages the World Heritage Convention, which has been a vehicle for international collaboration despite international differences.  The mandate of this landmark convention could be extended to Antarctica more substantively (even though Antarctica is not a country, member states can agree on a Memorandum of Understanding with the Antarctic Treaty System).  This would give more strength to existing protections under the Antarctic Treaty which only has 43 states that have acceded to its terms, whereas the UNESCO World Heritage Convention has been adopted by all 193 UN Member States and Palestine.

Antarctica’s geological features in the vicinity of such sites also provide an opportunity for the establishment of “geoparks” that are now also recognized by UNESCO. There are many diverse geological features along the most visited parts of the Antarctic peninsula, including the dormant Deception Island sub-sea volcano. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which provides a certification process for tour operators to meet the requirements of the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, has required operators to have some educational component in their tour operations. 

Antarctic paradox and citizen science

As a recent essay in the digital magazine Aeon noted, Antarctica presents humanity with a paradox – we have regimes to protect it directly from impact but some of the most consequential impacts on the continent as well as what it could unleash on the rest of the planet come from our individual actions on carbon emissions far from the continent.  The Antarctic is at once a vitally important and equally vulnerable location which we hope to bring closer to our communities of practice in business and academia to enhance action at home.

"Citizen Science" project partnerships are gaining traction in the Antarctic, most of which are focused on observations offshore, particularly of whales and birds. Despite criticism from some quarters on the quality of data emanating from such partnerships, there is little doubt about the educational value of projects designed as "community science."  Companies such as Hurtigruten and Lindblad expeditions (in partnership with National Geographic) have dedicated staff of scientists on their Antarctic vessels and labs on board their ships to provide experiential learning to visitors. 

Revisiting Governance

The Antarctic Treaty System has been a remarkable example of international scientific collaboration which has thus far trumped the impulse for states exercising their territorial claims through force. However, given the current state of geopolitics, there could be an erosion of this solidarity for science in the Antarctic. The continent's mineral wealth could be more accessible and permanent habitation (which Chile and Argentina already have as part of their claim to territory in Antarctica) more affordable to establish for those seven countries that claim territory in Antarctica. On the other hand, the climate crisis could also motivate parties to the treaty to remain steadfast in scientific collaboration and conservation regardless of domestic political interests.

The recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), was not able to reach consensus on marine protected areas around Antarctic waters. This is a sign that we cannot assume consensus and cooperation in the region in perpetuity, especially when only a fourth of the world's countries are parties to the Antarctic Treaty System.   Although no country has withdrawn from the Antarctic treaties as a result of disagreements, such as what occurred with Japan's withdrawal from the International Whaling Convention in 2018, we cannot take the status quo for granted. Furthermore, to prevent rogue interventions by non-member states, a concerted effort to get all countries to at least become "non-consultative parties" to the Antarctic Treaty system (this is a simple process and does not require a research presence) should be attempted.

The role of "the Global South" (Developing States)

There are also vast parts of the continent which are "unclaimed" and at one point the former Malaysian leader Mahathir Muhammad suggested to the United Nations that the continent should be accessible to developing countries rather than being a playground for elite scientists from rich countries. It is worth noting that the current Antarctic Treaty system is outside the purview of the United Nations. However, through engagement with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), and the Malaysian Academy of Sciences, the country later changed its stance and decided to join the treaty.

Developing countries such as Pakistan, which are bearing the brunt of climate change, should also have access to Antarctic science. Although there were some seed funds through SCAR, which were available for Pakistan to establish a fledgling base in 1991 (Jinnah base), there have been minimal resources available for the country to have a regular science program on the continent since then

There are mechanisms such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) - a multilateral trust fund to support the major environmental treaties on whose science panel I have served since 2017 - which could be deployed for such support. Only one attempt is on record for an Antarctic project through GEF and CCAMLR but this was cancelled before being implemented by UNDP.

Reimagining a Climate Changed Future

Research on climate change is a major equalizer in access to professional networks for developing country scientists through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), though they are still often sidelined for major empirical projects. As the only example of a major global commons dedicated to science, the climate crisis should provide an opportunity to make Antarctica a truly global collaborative laboratory for planetary change research. 

Antarctica has been the proverbial Terra Incognita even before its actual siting and discovery for humans. As climate change reveals more of the continent's terrain and we also gain access to improved methods to reveal its secrets, a new dawn of inclusive exploration is in order. Even so we must approach the continent's vast expanses with humility. As the great Australian explorer of the Southern Continent, Sir Douglas Mawson noted: "We came to probe the Antarctic's mystery, to reduce this land in terms of science, but there is always the indefinable which holds aloof yet which rivets our souls!"

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