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Continental Climate Change and AntarcticaPhoto Credit: Solly LeviKatherine PretoriusThe Antarctic continent is the world's fifth largest continent. Almost the entire landmass is covered by ice and is almost entirely centred around the South Pole, hence its name "opposite to the Arctic."Approximately 90% of the world's fresh water and 7 million cubic miles of ice are contained in the continental ice sheet, and a constant stream of icebergs is discharged into the seas by shelves, glaciers, and ice sheets along the Antarctic coast.If not for Antarctica, life on Earth would be very different. By absorbing as much as 75 per cent of the excess heat, the Southern Ocean helps slow down the rate of climate change. Globally, it also captures and distributes 35 per cent of the atmospheric CO2 taken up by the oceans.
Earth's coldest, driest, and windiest continent may not be very hospitable to human life but is home to 235 animal species. Scientists and tourists are the two main groups that travel to or live in Antarctica. There are no permanent residents, commercial industries, towns or cities, and no government. The Antarctic Treaty System is a set of legally binding international agreements that govern Antarctica and includes Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The climate of this icy continent has a significant impact on the global climate and is, in turn, directly affected by changes in the climate of that continent - making Antarctica and climate change inextricably bound.
In the polar regions, the political arena is historically characterised by a lack of cooperation and willingness to compromise. Climate change and global geopolitical developments have brought about new challenges; as the ice retreats, the louder the calls for commercial exploitation in the region becomes. Climate change has set in motion what can only be explained as a geopolitical chain reaction presenting new challenges to all parties to the Antarctic Treaty system. What are the effects of climate change in Antarctica? Often called "the canary in the coalmine," the polar regions are particularly sensitive to small changes in annual average temperatures, indicating changes long before they are seen elsewhere. Antarctica's mean annual air temperature has increased by almost three degrees (3°) C over the last 50 years, which is five times the global average, while the rest is rising at a slower rate. In February 2020, the Esperanza Station recorded the highest temperature ever in Antarctica, registered at the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.As a result of a warm spell that resulted in widespread melting of glaciers, the temperature reached 18.3°C (64.9°F). This region's third major melting event of the summer of 2019-2020 occurred during high temperatures above freezing point for several days. These events were sporadic but have become more frequent in the 21st century. As a standalone event, it would not have been particularly noteworthy, but the fact that these events are happening more frequently is much more significant.
With advancing technology and more effective communication methods, humans have become more adept at increasing their range of activity in the region. More stakeholders and states are currently active in the Arctic and Antarctic regions than a few decades ago, each with its own interests. To protect Antarctica and its fauna (animals) and flora (plants), the Antarctic has the following secondary international agreements for protection in place:Antarctic Fauna and Flora Conservation In Brussels, 1964, an agreement was reached with the focus on strengthening research cooperation relevant to the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora and establishing protected areas within the Arctic regions. Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) Signed in 1972 to regulate the commercial slaughter of seals prevalent in Antarctica at that time, the Convention protects all six seal species that breed in Antarctica and killing both Antarctic and Ross fur seals is prohibited. The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR -Convention) Adopted in 1980, subsequent to severe overfishing of the Rock cod (Notothenia Rossii) by what was then the Soviet Union. The focus of this marine convention was the management and conservation of living marine resources using an ecosystem approach which means impact evaluation of the removal of marine and other resources is carried out. This convention comprises 25 members, including the European Union, and represents approximately ten per cent (10%) of the Earth's oceans. All decisions made must be unanimous. Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty Concluded on October 4, 1991, the Environmental Protocol, also known as the Madrid Protocol, was concluded in Madrid, Spain. This Protocol has outlawed the mining of mineral resources in the Antarctic since 1998 and is reported to be the strictest and most comprehensive international agreement to date.
All activities within the Antarctic Treaty territories that may have detrimental effects on the environment and associated ecosystems are regulated, and Article two (2) of the Protocol states that the preservation of the Antarctic as a nature reserve is the obligation of all signatories. Discussions around the uniform actions and the basis of scientific recommendations that form the Arctic Council's fundamental principles have been lauded as a success story and even nominated for a Nobel Prize. Given the global impact of the growing tension among the superpowers, it is necessary to emphasise the Arctic Council's potential for cooperation.Although the current legal regime does have merit, it is lacking, and much is needed to strengthen current laws. Many opportunities exist for organisations, industries and individuals to use politics to influence the laws in the Arctic. Our actions over the next decade will determine the course of human civilisation for generations as we stand on the verge of catastrophic change.