Antarctic Issues and Challenges

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Antarctic Issues and Challenges


Antarctica is centered on the South Pole and is the fifth largest continent. It is the most environmentally extreme continent, being almost entirely covered with a sheet of ice some 1.5 miles (2.5 km) thick on average. Antarctica has no native trees or flowering plants, land-dwelling mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. Its largest native land-dwelling animals are insects, and its only native plants—found only on the 2% or so of the continent, including parts of outlying islands, that are bare of ice—are species of moss and algae. Because its terrestrial conditions are so harsh, Antarctica’s ecosystems are mostly coastal and marine, featuring several unique species of penguin, seal, petrel, and other predators. Large populations of krill (a small shrimplike species) in the Antarctic Ocean, which surrounds the continent, are the basis of a food chain that culminates in predators such as albatross, orcas, seals, and blue whales. The interior of the continent is almost completely devoid of life other than microorganisms, though sea birds have been known to fly across the interior.

Although covered with frozen water, Antarctica’s interior is technically a desert because its average precipitation is less than 10 inches (250 mm) per year; parts of the interior, including the South Pole itself, receive less than half this amount. Antarctica’s average year-round temperature is -56°F (-49°C). It has no native human inhabitants, but a population of about 7,000, mostly scientists and support personnel, inhabits a scattering of year-round bases maintained by various governments.

Despite its size and harsh environment, Antarctica is vulnerable to damage from human activities. Large lakes under the ice cap, completely isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of thousands of years, may be contaminated by boreholes drilled by Russian scientists; tens of thousands of tourists flock to the continent every year, bringing cruise-ship pollution and possibly interfering with the breeding and nesting behaviors of penguins and other animals; coal, oil, gas, and other valuable minerals are found on or near Antarctica, and extracting them would injure the Antarctic environment; anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is causing the breakup of coastal ice shelves around the West Antarctic Peninsula, speeding flow of glaciers to the sea; climate change has increased snowfall in the East Antarctic plateau and is changing wind and ocean-current patterns around the continent; and ozone-destroying industrial chemicals have caused a hole in the ozone layer to open above the continent for part of each year.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The exploration of Antarctica began in the early 1800s. Over the following century and a half, eight countries made territorial claims—sometimes overlapping—to large, pie-slice-shaped pieces of the continent. However, the remoteness and harshness of the Antarctic environment made it impractical to build settlements or exploit resources, apart from hunting seal and whale. In the mid-twentieth century, to prevent conflict over Antarctica, an international treaty governing usage of the continent was negotiated by a dozen nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and other major powers. This treaty, the Antarctic Treaty, was agreed upon in 1959 and entered into force in 1961. Along with a number of add-on agreements (protocols), the Antarctic Treaty governs Antarctic affairs to this day. As of 2008, 46 nations had agreed to the treaty. Although there had been good compliance with the treaty’s terms, disputes about activities on the continent continued to simmer.


ANTARCTIC TREATY: A 1959 series of agreements regulating international relations in Antarctica, establishing the area as a demilitarized zone to promote open scientific research.

ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by humans or resulting from human activities.

ICE CORE: A cylindrical section of ice removed from a glacier or ice sheet in order to study climate patterns of the past.

ICE SHELF: Section of an ice sheet that extends into the sea a considerable distance and that may be partially afloat.

OZONE HOLE: A term invented to describe a region of very low ozone concentration above the Antarctic that appears and disappears with each austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer.

Most of the 7,000 or so people found on Antarctica year-round are conducting or supporting the conduct of scientific research. Biology and climate are the main areas of study, although Antarctica’s ice fields are a unique meteorite-collecting ground that has yielded several samples of Mars rock, and proposals are afoot to establish a staffed astronomical observatory on Dome A, a region in the central-eastern plateau. Antarctica is a key component of Earth’s climate system, and its ancient snow layers, dating from the present back to about a million years ago, preserve unique records of ancient climate in their isotopic makeup and trapped air bubbles. The recovery of ice cores (cylindrical samples of deep ice) from the Antarctic ice cap is therefore one of the main endeavors of Antarctic science. There is also a booming tourism industry, including climbing expeditions to remote peaks; overflights of glaciers, peaks, and icebergs; guided tours of penguin breeding grounds; and cross-continental surface trips. Wildlife tours became even more popular following the success of the Academy Award-winning documentary March of the Penguins in 2006.

Impacts and Issues

Territorial Claims

Although the Antarctic Treaty forbids all military action in Antarctica, including the establishment of bases or the carrying out of exercises, none of the eight countries that have claimed Antarctic territory have as yet withdrawn their claims. The United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina have made overlapping claims that include the northern-most part of the West Antarctic Peninsula, a possible source of future conflict. (Argentina almost went to war with Chile in 1978 over a territorial claim, and fought the United Kingdom over such a claim in 1982; however, neither conflict involved Antarctica.)

Although the Antarctic Treaty suspended the making of new claims, and the eight existing claimants have not pursued any of their alleged rights over the last century, all claims remain on the books, and Russia and the United States have reserved the right to make claims in the future.

Mineral Resources

Oil and gas reserves were discovered off the coast of Antarctica under the Ross Sea, due south of New Zealand, in the early 1970s. The existence of coal on the continent has been known since the mid-1800s, but because most of the continent is overlain by deep ice, few mineral resources have been identified on the continent itself. An addendum or protocol to the Antarctic Treaty that forbids any exploitation of mineral resources in Antarctica, the Protocol on Environmental Protection, was drafted in 1991 and entered into force in 1998. As of 2008, no nation had yet sought to exploit Antarctica’s oil or gas, but crude oil prices were by that time at historic highs and world demand for natural gas was rising rapidly, making it possible that at some point an increasingly energy-hungry world would turn to the resources under the Ross Sea and other, as-yet-undiscovered resources under the ocean or the ice sheet.

Lake Vostok

In 1996, British and Russian scientists discovered a large lake hidden under 2.3 miles (3.7 km) of ice at the center of the East Antarctic sheet. The lake, christened Lake Vostok, is the largest of about 70 interconnected lakes under the Antarctic ice. Lake Vostok is similar in size to North America’s Lake Ontario, but exists under bizarre conditions, with a pressure of 400 atmospheres, total darkness, near-freezing cold, and slight circulation driven only by lunar tides. Most of Lake Vostok’s water has resided in the lake for about a million years, compared to only a few years for even the largest surface lakes. Scientists often compare Lake Vostok to the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa, where there is a slight possibility that simple life exists.

Lake Vostok’s only known life consists of bacteria, observed not in water samples from the lake itself—which as of early 2008 had not yet been breached—but in ice samples from deep bore-holes just above the lake’s upper surface. In the early 2000s, Russian scientists announced their intention to drill into the lake’s waters for the first time. The plan was criticized by scientists of many other nations, who warned that the lake’s unique environment, where bacteria may have evolved independently for hundreds of thousands of years, could be contaminated by surface bacteria or polluted by the many tons of chemicals used by the Russians to keep their bore-hole from freezing solid. Another grim possibility was that the high pressure of the lake’s waters could blow out the borehole, resulting in an uncontrollable release of lake waters onto the surface. As of 2008, Russian researchers claimed that their research safe-guards were adequate and that they would go ahead with their plans to penetrate the lake.


By the early 2000s, Antarctic tourism was a big business and growing rapidly. In 1990 and 1991, only about 4,700 tourists had visited Antarctica; in 2003 and 2004, more than 24,000 visited, and numbers were expected to rise to over 30,000 during the 2006 season. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a coalition of conservation groups, argued in 2006 that increased tourism threatened to disturb the breeding and feeding habits of penguins and other Antarctic birds.

Although most tour operations in Antarctica are governed by the rules of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, both membership in the group and obedience to its rules are purely voluntary. Some observers have reported incidents where tourists, who are supposed to stay at least 15 feet (5 m) away from all sea-birds, have chased penguins with video cameras in hand. Helicopters fly near colonies, possibly disrupting bird behaviors, and large cruise ships discharge wastes in coastal waters.

Climate Change

Anthropogenic climate change is causing slight cooling and increased snowfall in eastern Antarctica and drastic warming over the West Antarctic Peninsula. In addition to causing possible harm to populations of penguins and other creatures adapted to the Antarctica’s present environment, warming is causing increased melting of West Antarctic ice. Several large, floating ice shelves have bro-


The West Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming regions in the world. Jutting out into the Antarctic Ocean, the peninsula is fringed by ice shelves, vast floating masses of ice anchored to the coast and slowing the emptying of glaciers into the sea. As climate warms in the region, some of these shelves are weakening and breaking up, allowing glaciers to flow faster. The latest such event began in March 2008, when the Wilkins ice shelf began to rapidly disintegrate. A 160-square-mile (414 square kilometer) area of ice broke away, leaving the rest of the shelf held in place only by a narrow strip of stable ice anchored to an island at each end. The rest of the shelf was not likely to break up that season, as winter was beginning in the Southern Hemisphere, but scientists said that the beginning of the Wilkins shelf breakup was the latest sign of dramatic climate change in that part of Antarctica. In the last 30 years, six Antarctic ice shelves have collapsed, and the speedup of dozens of Antarctic glaciers has been confirmed. Collapsing ice shelves do not raise sea level directly, since floating ice has the same affect on sea level whether it melts or not, but glaciers add new water to the ocean, raising its level.

ken up along the coast of the peninsula in recent years, unplugging the outlets of land-based glaciers and so speeding their flow to the sea (by about 12% from 1993 to 2003). When it empties into the ocean, glacial ice raises sea level, which impacts coastal human settlements and ecosystems worldwide. Scientists are not sure how much of Antarctica’s ice will melt and how quickly it will do so.

Antarctic climate is being affected not only by global warming but by the seasonal disappearance of ozone in the stratosphere above the continent, a phenomenon known as the ozone hole. Ozone (O3) is a molecular form of oxygen that blocks harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. The ozone hole is caused by decades of releases of long-lived industrial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons that destroy ozone. If the ozone hole became global, the ecological and human consequences would be catastrophic. Releases of ozone-destroying chemicals have been limited since 1989 by the Montreal Protocol, but the chemicals are so long-lasting (and are still being emitted, though in smaller quantities) that the Antarctic ozone hole is not likely to begin shrinking again until about 2025.

See Also Antarctic Treaty; Climate Change; Global Warming; Ice Cores; Ozone Hole



Triggs, Gillian, and Anna Riddell. Antarctica: Legal and Environmental Challenges for the Future. London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2007.


Cross, Michael. “Antarctica: Exploration or Exploitation?” New Scientist (June 22, 1991).

Web Sites

Antarctica New Zealand. “Mining Issues in Antarctica.” (accessed April 8, 2008).

National Science Foundation. “Antarctic Conservation Act.” (accessed April 8, 2008). “Tourism ‘Threatens Antarctic.’” (accessed April 8, 2008).

Larry Gilman