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Conservation in Antarctica - Protecting the Environment

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Why Protect Antarctica?

To some Antarctica is simply a cold, distant uninviting and dangerous place with little to offer the world, so "Why Protect Antarctica" may seem to be a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Even if you don't think it's worth asking, it's worth being able to answer it.

1 - Antarctica is the last and largest unspoiled wilderness area on Earth. It is a reminder of what the planet was like before the influence of man, its unspoiled beauty has inspired victors since it was first glimpsed. It has huge expanses of relatively pristine oceans with an enormous variety and quantity of marine life, much of which is only found in Antarctica and no-where else.

2 - Antarctica belongs to no-one and everyone, there were never any native people's living there and because environmental conditions are so difficult it was never settled in the usual sense and so isn't a part of any one country. It is the last frontier in a number of senses including emotionally and spiritually. We should be able to set one place apart.

3- Antarctica is a continent for science, as it is so unspoiled it acts as a laboratory for the rest of the world where changes can be measured in isolation from the effects of man. It is crucial for instance in helping us to understand the effects of global warming including using ice cores going back hundreds of thousands of years from the up to 4km thick ice cap.

What Conservation Measures are now in place in Antarctica?

Until the 1960s, some species of whales and seals were taken to the brink of extinction by human activities in Antarctica. Waste and garbage was left where it fell, burnt in great open fires or was deposited in the ocean. Fisheries were non-existent or on a very small scale, and were completely unregulated.

Over the years since the Antarctic Treaty came into force, ever greater environmental awareness has led to increasing regulation by the Antarctic Treaty System. All plants and animals in Antarctica are now protected and there are measures in place to prevent pollution of this - the worlds most pristine environment.

There are many resolutions and measures for the protection of Antarctica and its fauna (animals) and flora (plants). In brief they state that:

Permits for Travelling to Antarctica

The Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty became law in 1998 after legislation in each of the member countries. One of the ways in which this protects Antarctica is by only allowing visitors to Antarctica by member nations as long as they are given a permit to do so. The granting of a permit is dependent on the visitors agreeing to adhere to certain rules and guidelines. Each nations rules are not the same in the detail, though they are similar in the general principles. 

In Britain for example, the following activities require a permit from the Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs:

  • British expeditions travelling to Antarctica.

  • British stations in Antarctica.

  • British registered vessels and aircraft going to Antarctica.

  • Mineral resource activities for scientific research or for certain construction purposes.

  • The taking of, or harmful interference with, fauna or flora.

  • The introduction of non-native animals or plants.

  • Entry into areas protected under the Protocol ( Antarctic Specially Protected Areas - ASPA) or under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (CEMP Monitoring Sites)

    Examples of how these regulations are put into practice

    Waste from Ships

  • The discharge of any oil or oily mixture, bulk chemicals or garbage from a ship is prohibited in Antarctica and must be discharged at port reception facilities outside the region. Many ships operating in Antarctic waters retain oil and oily mixtures on board the ship. Oily water separators are often fitted and the discharge of oil from ships is monitored by maintaining an Oil Record Book, as required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • Sewage from ships is usually passed through a biological treatment plant that meets the requirements of the IMO before discharge. If these systems break down in the Antarctic, ships will avoid discharging untreated raw sewage within 12 nautical miles of shore.
  • Food waste is passed through a waste disposal unit that shreds the waste so that it will pass through a mesh size of less than 25 mm, discharge is then at least 12 nautical miles from shore. If ships are within 12 nautical miles of shore, the waste is held in holding tanks until it can be discharged. Large bones and other food wastes which are difficult to shred are frozen and disposed of at port reception facilities outside Antarctica.
  • Other waste generated on ships is stored on board until it can be disposed of outside Antarctica. Shredders are used to process glass and small metal waste. Compactors are used to bale plastic. Paper and cardboard are burnt in high temperature marine incinerators. Waste food wrappings are frozen for later disposal in port.
Waste from Antarctic bases
  • The dumping of waste or chemicals on land or at sea, or open burning of rubbish are all prohibited. Instead, wastes are separated at source, processed using a range of compacting and shredding equipment to reduce volume, and then removed.
  • Waste from Antarctic bases is packaged up and shipped out of Antarctica for disposal by licensed waste contractors. Dumping at sea or burning in Antarctica are now not permitted.
  • Certain bases as permitted under the Environmental Protocol, discharge sewage and food waste into the sea. At other bases they are discharged into ice pits. These wastes are not removed from Antarctica because of the health risks involved in shipping large quantities over long distances. The extent and the environmental effects of the release of sewage and food waste into the near shore marine environment is monitored on an ongoing basis. Such effluent has been shown to have only minor and local impact. Despite this an increasing number of bases are installing biological sewage treatment plants.
  • Many national programmes carry out an annual audit of the quantities of waste generated at research stations, field camps and ships.

In 1991 the fear that distemper from dogs could spread to seals led to a new clause in the Antarctic Treaty.

 "Dogs shall not be introduced onto land or ice shelves and dogs currently in those areas shall be removed by April 1 1994" - and so they were.

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