Increased pollution and diversification of tourism activities are challenging the Antarctic and application of protocols.
London: The All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions convened the first Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London on 2-3 December. Invitees from the 54 signatories discussed the future of the coldest, highest, driest, windiest and remotest place on earth. Delegates from the Indian High Commission included Vishwesh Negi (Minister-Politics) and Yamuna S.V. (Counsellor/Technical Advisor-Defence). Sulagna Chattopadhyay from the Indian think tank Sustainable Action Group for Himalaya-Arctic-Antarctic came from Delhi.
Parliamentarians and delegates representing 18 countries gathered at RUSI to understand the importance of the “White Continent” in climate change and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty (AT).
James Gray MP and chair of APPG Polar Regions hosted the event, bringing Antarctic issues into the heart of Parliament. He presented Boris Johnson’s goodwill for the Assembly and read a letter of support from “the Prime Minister of Polar Affairs” Sir David Attenborough.
Jane Rumble, head of the FCO Polar Regions Department, gave an overview of the discovery and commercial history of the continent: in 1957-58, overlapping claims and scientists’ desire to study caused the signing of the Treaty in 1959. At that time today’s issues were unknown, but the Treaty laid the foundations for the protections of seals, marine living resources and minerals, the Protocol for Environmental Protection (PEP) and CCAMLR. The 1998 PEP still has 29 signatories in discussions, the liability for environmental damage was agreed in Stockholm in 2005 but is not in force yet as not all Parliaments have ratified it. Rumble credited the Treaty for successfully enabling 60 years of peace and scientific cooperation, protecting the area from commercial mineral exploitation, designating the marine protection area, regulating fisheries and ensuring environmentally responsible tourism. It is now possible to fly into Antarctica landing on a ground ice runway in a 767! Tourists currently number 50,000 per annum, with 80,000 projected over the next few years as new standards of ships become operational.
Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of the British Antarctic Survey and Chancellor of Leeds University, described how if all the ice in Antarctica melted global sea levels would rise by 50 metres; 70% of the world’s freshwater is locked in the shelves and currently warmer water is melting the shelves from below. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melts, a 5-metre sea level rise (SLR) would occur in just a short time. Research projects are hot-water drilling through ice 2 kilometres thick to study ice sheet history; air bubbles in the ice have revealed that in the past carbon dioxide was never higher than 300 ppm, now we are at 412 ppm.
The world’s weather comes from Antarctica, heat and cold are spread around the world by the global ocean conveyor regulating our planet’s climate. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the largest uninterrupted ocean current on earth. It drives the monsoon in India; the Southern Ocean absorbs 50% of the annual CO2 drawn down into the oceans. Changes in Antarctica have global consequences.
Tim Naish, Professor in Earth Sciences at the Antarctic Research Centre, New Zealand, warned warming of the climate system was unequivocal. 2019 is on track to be the warmest year on record at +1.2°C, and the human influence is clear in the 412ppm. Three million years ago, earth had a temperature 3 degrees warmer and 400 ppm CO2. Greenland’s sheet ice and Antarctica partially melted, adding a total of 20 metres SLR. Since 1850, global sea levels have risen by 20 cm, but it is not evenly spread. This will trigger large migrations and displacement of people. If the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, North America and Europe will experience +30% more SLR according to SCAR (the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research). The tipping point in the Paris Agreement is at 1.5°C, which SCAR estimates reaching in 10-15 years. Alarming statistics included 18 milion people could be displaced from Bangladesh and 66% of the Hindu Kush mountain glaciers could be lost by 2100.
Professor Steven Chown from Monash University, Australia and President of the International Science Council’s Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), gave an extraordinary insight into the biodiversity impacts on the sea floor and on the ice. Some US scientist have discovered that the Antarctic and Southern Oceans are an engine for making new species, but this is at risk from homogenisation and the transfer of species like dandelions, midges and mice. Mice are particularly gruesome as when their vegetable diet runs out they will turn carnivorous and eat helpless baby albatross chicks alive. Chown says a terrible and significant impact is already happening. Krill are moving south, Antarctic penguin distributions and abundances are changing, the prognosis for Emperor penguins is poor; the establishment of non-native species is pushing out local species.
Chown explained that new projections show rising sea levels will affect 340 million people by 2050. Those affected will likely go to protected areas such as national parks or agricultural areas, and thus the current gains made in protected areas will be lost. He said, “Domestic migration will be economically influential, potentially disastrous.” He continued that solar radiation management and carbon capture are not the answer, the only answer is to cut emissions.
Increased pollution and diversification of tourism activities are challenging the Antarctic and the application of the Antarctic Treaty protocols and tools for environment protection and governance will be ever more essential.
Professor Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University London, gave a brief overview of geopolitics and governance in Antarctica—what he called the messier side, saying the signing of the Treaty in the middle of the Cold War was a remarkable achievement. Three signatories had specific reasons for doing so; Australia wanted to know what the Soviets were up to, Britain wanted to know what Argentina and Chile wanted to do there, and the US wanted to remind everyone else they were the most important state in the world. The International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 was very significant; science became the opportunity for diplomatic encounter as science cannot be held back by geopolitics. Dodds continued that in 1959 the 12 parties were wise not to address claims, the AT celebrates compromise, agreeing to disagree by consensus. In 1959 consensus was an apex to aspire to, not a pejorative, he recommended channelling that spirit.
Our future is uncertain but what is certain is that ice sheets will continue to melt, leading to a 1.2 metre rise by 2100. Prof Naish posed the question: Does the Paris Agreement prevent sheet ice melt? To mitigate he proposes CO2 emissions need to decline to net zero by 2055. World leaders and AT signatories need to adapt to climate change/rising sea levels and step up the global role needed to mitigate the impact on humanity.
A historic consensus statement signed by all 19 parliamentary delegates stated that as a group of parliamentarians from Antarctic Treaty Parties they “Note with concern the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which highlights the profound effects of climate change on Antarctica’s ecosystems and the potentially catastrophic effects of Antarctic ice loss on global sea level”.