It's the least hospitable place on Earth with its extreme cold
and wind, and sovereign claims have been disputed for decades,
yet Antarctica has become a model for international cooperation.
the center of the collaboration is the Antarctic Treaty System,
an international framework developed as the United States and
Russia, in the midst of a Cold War, were preparing to lay strategic
territorial claims on the continent.
Eschewing a territorial war in 1959, the two countries, joined
by other Antarctic claimants -- Argentina, Australia, Chile, France,
New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom -- and nations with
interests in the area -- Belgium, Japan and South Africa -- agreed
on a diplomatic solution: The nations would shift focus exclusively
to the scientific research that had come to the forefront in the
International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958. The countries, freezing
their claims, declared that all Antarctic activity would be for
peaceful purposes, preventing nuclear testing and militarization;
any new establishments would have to be built for scientific research,
not enforcement of previous claims.
The U.S. government, as a point of policy, has been clear that
military presence only take the form of support for scientific
ventures, providing resources such as icebreakers and vehicles
to transport the more than 1,000 U.S. researchers that make up
the bulk of the Antarctic population. In total, about 4,000 researchers
worked on the continent in the 2005-6 summer peak, with groups
of more than 200 from Russia, Argentina, Chile, Australia and
the United Kingdom, which operate primarily along the coasts.
"Because of the remoteness of the area, any country that's really
capable of a major effort in Antarctica is probably a signatory
or at least accedes to it," said Mahlon Kennicutt, a professor
of oceanography at Texas A&M University and the U.S. representative
to the body that coordinates research in Antarctica, the Scientific
Committee on Antarctic Research. Any government that wanted to
participate could as long as they can adhere to the treaty's basic
precepts. To date, 48 have become signatories with major research-conducting
nations comprising the 28 Consultative Parties.
With funding of about $300 million, the National Science Foundation
carries out U.S. policy that extends from the Antarctic Treaty.
The NSF maintains the year-round U.S. facilities at the coastal
McMurdo and Palmer stations and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole
station, as first mandated by President Nixon in the 1970s and
President Reagan in 1982. In the absence of a military presence,
the NSF and Department of Justice enforce the U.S. law in the
continent, 1978's Antarctic Conservation Act, which imposes fines
or jail time for anyone disrupting the Antarctic ecosystem. With
no mechanism for enforcement built into the treaty, order is maintained
by peer pressure and laws passed by individual member nations,
representing two-thirds of the worlds population, to protect Antarctic
Working by unanimous consent, the Antarctic Treaty System has
spawned a series of resolutions, regarding plants and animals
in 1964, seals in 1972, and marine life in 1980. While discussing
a crisis over mining issues in Madrid in 1991, the group drafted
its most comprehensive framework, the Protocol on Environmental
Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which comprehensively limited
human interaction with the continent, including a ban on any activities
related to mining not for scientific research.
The United States updated its Antarctic policy in 1996 for the
first time in two decades, incorporating the recommendations from
the Madrid Protocol.
Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at Australian
National University, said Antarctic policy develops slowly in
the absence of crises, such as the mining concerns that led to
the creation of the Madrid Protocol.
"The legal issues have been fairly well identified. What we need
is political will on the part of the Antarctic Treaty Parties,"
Evan Bloom, a deputy director for polar affairs at the U.S. Department
of State and head of the U.S. delegation to the Antarctic Treaty
Consultative Meeting, said the uncertain environmental impact
of growing tourism could be a major point of discussion at the
April 2007 Consultative Parties meeting.
Colin Summerhayes, the executive director of the Scientific Committee
on Antarctic Research, said illegal fishing poses the largest
risk to the treaty, but noted that bioprospecting, the search
for species whose biology could be exploited for medicinal or
other commercial applications, could become an issue.
"It's like an Amazon rainforest under the sea: It's very diverse.
So the potential exists for unique chemical compounds," Summerhayes
Rothwell said bioprospecting falls in a legal grey area, because
it is a combination of scientific research promoted by the treaty
and the mining that it prohibits. Should Antarctic species become
valuable, Rothwell added, the issue could unravel the treaty,
whether by infringement or the reestablishment of claims.
Though the United States continues to disregard claims on Antarctica
and reserves the right to lay claims of its own, the State Department
doubts any would be made while the treaty was intact.
"I don't think there's any thinking at all, and there hasn't
been for decades, about doing that, because there's no need,"
Bloom said the treaty remains one of the most successful in promoting
And Rothwell said the treaty could be applied elsewhere, such
as the Spratly Islands, a collection of small islands and reefs
in the South China Sea, where, like Antarctica, there is no indigenous
population, and where multiple nations have laid claim over potential
"Letting countries [laying claim in the South China Sea] engage
in scientific research, without the tension of sovereignty ...
there's some chance of possibly acquiring the type of diplomatic
and legal resolution of the issues that have been achieved in
Antarctica," he said.
Chris Elfring, the director of the Polar Research Board of the
National Research Council Board, which advises government agencies
on polar science, talked about the combination of policy and science.
"The policy world is slow and subtle, and you have to have faith
that your best efforts to have good, fair discussions about [scientific]
issues in the end play out and make for better policy."