Antarctica as a ‘Natural Reserve’ Devoted to Peace and Science: Since the 1990s

Since the 1990s, the Antarctic has increasingly been represented in global ecological terms. The growing body of evidence purporting to link the polar continent to possible global climatic change has been used by scientists and scientific organizations to explain and legitimize their endeavors. Antarctic is being increasingly seen not only as a barometer of global environmental and resource debates but also as a key point of reference to other concerns such as atmospheric circulation, sea level changes, and ozone depletion.

The 1991 Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection designates Antarctica as a 'natural reserve devoted to peace and science' and binds its present and future signatories to total protection of the Antarctic environment – its intrinsic and extrinsic worth, including its wilderness, esthetic value, and its value as an area for scientific research, especially that which is essential to understanding global environment. It categorically prohibits any activity relating to mineral resources, 'other than scientific research'. The Protocol sets out some basic environmental principles to govern all human activity in Antarctica – be it scientific, tourism related, governmental, nongovernmental, or related to logistic support. According to the Protocol, activities in the Antarctic Treaty area shall be planned and conducted on the basis of information sufficient to allow prior assessments of, and informed judgments about, their possible impacts on the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and on the value of Antarctica for the conduct of scientific research.

Organically linked to the Antarctic Treaty and other components of the ATS, the Protocol in no way alters the 'special legal and political status of Antarctica'. Still, it does break new ground, while raising certain pertinent questions about the protection of the Antarctic environment in the wake of mounting global awareness and interests of all kinds, growing capability of certain nations to devise new uses or find new values of the area, and as advances in high tech expand general levels of science and capability.