The Icy Politics of Antarctica

By Kate Bevan

On the evening of 4th October 1957, the world watched in anticipation as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik – the first human-made object to enter orbit – initiating an age of space exploration and fuelling existing tensions at the height of the Cold War. Just two years later in December 1959, representatives of the twelve nations active during the International Geophysical Year gathered in Washington to sign the first version of the Antarctic Treaty, forging an international symbol of détente during a period of political upheaval. Most notable at the time was the agreement to preserve Antarctica ‘for peaceful purposes only’, and as the first arms agreement during the Cold War, the treaty proved promising for the ability of nations to put aside their differences in pursuit of a common cause.

Astonishingly, sixty years and an additional 41 signatories later, the treaty remains remarkably similar to its original draft. This is a surprising fact, given the rate and extent of political and environmental change. Increased strategic interests in Antarctica combined with high rates of ice melt and the impacts of a growing number of tourists have exposed shortfalls in the treaty, and its inability to curtail exploitative actions and adapt to the growing pressures of climate change call for an urgent need for reform.

The current treaty serves to protect all areas of ocean and landmass south of 60⁰ South latitude, reserving these spaces for scientific cooperation whilst protecting the continent from territorial claims and environmental degradation. Following designation of Antarctica as ‘the last great wilderness’ on earth, the importance of environmental protection was later acknowledged in the Madrid Protocol, which was adopted in 1991 and has since been signed by 103 countries. The protocol largely reiterates the fundamental principles of the Antarctic Treaty, recognising Antarctica as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Importantly, the protocol also prohibits mining on the continent and requires that all proposed infrastructural activity must be subject to an impact assessment.

One problem uniting both the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol is that they are self-policing systems with no overarching body responsible for enforcing either contract. The protection of the continent therefore relies on the honesty and goodwill of the signatories, a modus operandi that is prone to exploitation and violation. When preparing to build in Antarctica, for example, countries must carry out their own environmental assessment, assigning a level of impact to the proposed activity. Such assessments often do not address the full extent of the potential damage and, because there is no external monitoring framework, are sometimes ignored completely. Preliminary building of China’s most recent research station began before completion of the environmental impact assessment – thereby breaching the terms of the treaty – yet China faced no sanctions. Not only does this undermine the sincerity of the treaty, but it dangerously paves the way for similar violations by other parties.

"One problem uniting both the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol is that they are self-policing systems with no overarching body responsible for enforcing either contract. The protection of the continent therefore relies on the honesty and goodwill of the signatories."

Environmental damage resulting from infrastructure is compounded by that from tourism, which increases each year. Estimates from IAATO place the number of tourists who visited Antarctica during the 2016/7 season at over 51,000 people, an 18% increase on the previous year, and though the majority of tourists arrive from the USA, China comes a close second. Though tourists are often confined to a few select locations, the increasing use of private yachts and extreme snow sport equipment has enabled people to traverse areas of the continent that were previously unreachable. Moreover, the tourist season in Antarctica coincides with the breeding season of most wildlife, threatening to disturb several species. While the initial treaty recognised the potential issues associated with construction and put preventative measures in place, the impacts of tourism were largely unanticipated at the time of its writing. Regulating visitor numbers is hence a great challenge. Refurbishment of Antarctica’s only hotel – which boasts visitors such as Prince Harry and food cooked by Lewis Hamilton’s private chef – was completed in 2016, attracting even greater numbers of tourists. Under constant expansion of the Antarctic tourist industry, the current treaty has no hope of controlling the number of people keen to cross the south pole for a hefty price.


However, the most significant failures of both the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol lie in their inability to control the current rate and extent of climate change, despite countless warnings backed by rigorous research. Lacking strict policing measures and sufficient protocols directly addressing climate change and resource exploitation issues, both agreements require urgent revision to ensure that continued warming is appropriately managed. Since the mid-20th century, climate change in Antarctica has been positive and significant. The effects of such warming are spatially diachronous, though, occurring preferentially along the Antarctic peninsula and western coasts. According to the British Antarctic Survey, the western Antarctic peninsula has suffered warming of 2.9 ⁰C over the past 60 years and coastal waters to the west of this region have warmed by 1 ⁰C over the same period. Such warming is faster than the global average and matched only by temperature increases in the Arctic. A wealth of evidence supports the role of humans in driving such rapid change.

"The most significant failures of both the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol lie in their inability to control the current rate and extent of climate change."

Anthropogenic forcing of atmospheric circulation, combined with a large ozone hole over Antarctica, have likely strengthened westerly winds over the peninsula. As warm air is forced over the western Antarctic, temperatures rise and meltwater is drained away from ice sheets. This process likely led to the infamous collapse of the Larsen ice shelf in 2002, an event which served as a timely indicator of the magnitude of climate change in western Antarctica. Increasing temperatures are largely manifested in rising rates of snow and ice melt across much of the continent, which exert a positive feedback on regional warming through decreasing albedo and rising sea levels. In a 2018 publication in Nature, scientists from the IMBIE research group estimated that the Antarctic ice sheet had lost nearly 3 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992. Subsequent changes in sea level and temperature have continued to accelerate melting.

Though evidence of warming in other areas of Antarctica is less substantial, recent studies have attributed ice melt along the eastern coast to a positive feedback relationship with rising sea temperatures. Another recent study, published in Science in 2018, posits that meltwater injected into the Southern Ocean significantly reduces the vertical mixing of ocean waters, with colder meltwater remaining on the surface and warmer waters retaining their heat below. The increased warmth of deep water along the eastern coast initiates melting of ice sheets from below, causing them to lose stability and become prone to sliding. This effect likely extends to other areas of the continent and may be the dominant driver of Antarctic ice melt.

The changing face of Antarctica is likely to widen existing differences between parties with conflicting intentions on the continent as well as fostering new ones. A treaty fraught with loopholes and ambiguities is insufficient to deal with shifting political relations on the continent, particularly at a time when the need for environmental protection is greatest. The major players in Antarctic politics are undergoing a drastic shift, with China’s presence becoming increasingly notable in comparison to those countries asserting political dominance when the treaty was signed, such as Australia and the United Kingdom. Any hostilities accompanying this trend – from competition for resources to stakes in the Antarctic tourist industry – are likely to be exacerbated by a warming Antarctic landscape.

The waters surrounding Antarctica have already seen a significant decline in krill populations coincident with a decrease in sea ice. Amidst these declines, tensions between nations reliant on offshore fishing are likely to increase, a problem that the current treaty has no means of dealing with. As growing pressure is placed on limited krill stocks and icy habitats decline, populations of whales and penguins that are so evocative of Antarctic wildlife are threatened. A 2018 report issued by Greenpeace states that operation of krill fishing vessels in the breeding grounds of Antarctic macrofauna not only depletes valuable marine food sources but also increases the chances of oil spills and accidents, both of which could initiate further population declines. According to Dr Ari Friedlaender, a marine biologist dedicated to studying the Antarctic peninsula, such rapid climate change offers little hope for the future of marine life. "Animals that are endemic to [Antarctic] environments […] are adapted to very extreme conditions […] and as you change the structure of that system very rapidly, those animals simply cannot adapt quick enough," he explains.

Though marine life in the oceans surrounding Antarctica is monitored and protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) – a branch of the Antarctic Treaty – species declines have occurred nonetheless. The CCAMLR sets limits on total allowable catches, the closing and opening of fisheries, and the designation of marine protected areas, however the convention is self-policing and only applicable to member states. Violations are commonplace. Of the 24 signatories of the CCAMLR, 12 were reported to have fished heavily in Antarctic waters in 2014, collectively removing 290,000 tonnes of krill. Following severe climate change, the CCAMLR opened discussions in 2013 aimed towards designating the Ross Sea as a Marine Protected Area. However, the deal failed to materialise, and was vetoed by Russia on the basis that the CCAMLR itself did not have the authority to make such a decision; a move likely masking Russia’s fears over losing the ability to fish in this area.


Claims to sovereignty predate the Antarctic Treaty, and implicit territorial claims have pervaded Antarctic politics for over one hundred years. Although the treaty forbids the assertion of ownership over the continent, a somewhat blind eye has been turned to the thorny issue of political dominance. Currently, seven nations have made claims to sovereignty over portions of Antarctic territory. In recent years, the economic and geopolitical resurgence of Russia has led it to increase its investments in Antarctic research stations and satellite receivers. In a paper examining Russia’s foreign affairs, geopolitical researchers Perry Carter, Anne-Marie Brady and Evgeny Pavlov argue that "Russia’s Antarctic policy aims to forward national interests as well as strengthening the nation’s internal and external image."

Yet it is China whose ambitions to become a ‘polar great power’ have become particularly evident in recent years. According to Anne-Marie Brady, a leading researcher in Chinese geopolitics, China invests more money each year in Antarctica than any other country, with the aim of rivalling the USA in its ability to operate independently at both poles. Professor Brady states that this investment is largely ‘so that China can have the right to speak in the future on new governance measures in the polar regions’. With infrastructure building limited by the treaty, research stations serve as a proxy for political activity, and China has been particularly enthusiastic in this department, completing the construction of its fifth research station in 2018. Moreover, scientific research conducted at these stations has increasingly become interspersed with bioprospecting, as samples are investigated for their use as potentially valuable commodities. The blurred distinction between research and bioprospecting is notoriously difficult to determine, and again – no attempts have been made by the Antarctic Treaty to regulate it.

Those research stations nearest to the south pole are also of strategic importance and a number of countries including China have outwardly demonstrated a desire to place satellite receivers in this area. China’s presence in Antarctica does not end here, however, and in late 2018 it revealed plans to build a permanent airfield to increase logistical access to resources. As exploitation of economic opportunities in Antarctica continues to increase, China cannot be expected to steady its rate of strategic investment on the continent.

Interest in future resource extraction in Antarctica is not limited to China. Several countries have made evident their desire to exploit resources that may become available, as continued ice melt opens previously inhospitable transport routes. Claims to natural resources of the oceans are currently mandated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (‘UNCLOS’), under which nations making claims must provide geophysical data demonstrating that the areas in question are natural extensions of their territorial landmasses. Several countries maintaining territories on the Southern Ocean islands have already submitted such claims, in a rush for undersea real estate. Many of these territories are owned by nations with the economic and technological means to exploit Antarctica, yet the current treaty fails to address these implicit territorial claims made over the continent.

"Many of these territories are owned by nations with the economic and technological means to exploit Antarctica, yet the current treaty fails to address these implicit territorial claims made over the continent."

The mining agreement of the Madrid Protocol is due to be reviewed in 2048, a year that will further differentiate those parties concerned with maintaining a pristine environment in Antarctica from those willing to exploit its resources for economic gain. With Russia and China among the consultative parties acceding to the treaty – thereby granting them greater negotiating power – those concerned with environmental welfare must lobby to ensure that recent investments on the continent are not misused to capitalise on resources.


It is clear, therefore, that the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol are insufficient to address the current rate of environmental change and resource exploitation in Antarctica, and the political tensions that accompany this. Given the uncertainty surrounding future environmental change, the lack of adaptability demonstrated by both agreements furthers their insufficiencies. In the words of Anne-Marie Brady, "there has to be more high-level attention paid by governments on how to adjust to the changing environment." Reforms of the Antarctic Treaty should directly address the loopholes discussed here, to ensure that subtle attempts to exploit natural resources or stake territorial claims are no longer tolerated.

Perhaps the most effective method of ensuring this is to hold an international body responsible for overseeing activity on the continent. Though the CCAMLR attempts to do this by enlisting a committee to establish and enforce protocols, this fails to address the fundamental problem: that membership of the CCAMLR is voluntary. The Antarctic Treaty therefore requires strict policing and compulsory membership for those wishing to carry out construction and research on the continent. Granting an international body, such as the United Nations, the mandate to sanction countries would remove power from consultative countries with exploitative intentions and ensure that breaches of the treaty are addressed with deserved severity.

In a world fraught with political tension, cooperation in Antarctica offers hope that nations are able to work together for a common cause. Given the overwhelming evidence testifying to environmental change in Antarctica, destruction of some of the most pristine landscapes on earth alone should provide apt reason for countries to pursue environmental protection under a reformed and improved treaty. Moreover, resolving political conflicts amidst Antarctic climate change may set the scene for cooperation in other arenas – so let those for whom environmental destruction is not convincing enough be reminded of the political harmony that Antarctica has come to embody.

Art by Jess Baker

Kate Bevan is a third-year geographer studying at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University with a keen interest in climatology. She has tailored much of her degree to investigating climate change and its impacts and has recently finished writing her dissertation on the long-range transport of Saharan dust to the British Isles. She will be furthering her interests in this field next year by studying for an MSc in Climate Change, with the hope of being able to contribute to the development of effective climate change policy and management. Outside of her studies, Kate can be found throwing heavy weights around with OUPLC, reading classic literature and exploring new places as often as she can.

This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.

If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.

Find us on...

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram