Science and the Antarctic: Resource Exploitation, Regulatory Lacunae and Environmental Security

By: Prof Karen Scott
Antarctic has arguably been ‘constructed through science’ as a geopolitical and legal space and science has been used as a surrogate for effective occupation, supporting the ‘colonisation’ of Antarctic. Yet science also provided both the motive and the means to negotiate and adopt, at the height of the Cold War, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, under the auspices of which, a successful, effective and enduring management regime for Antarctic has been developed.

Scientific activities in the Antarctic play an important role in both supporting and defining states’ political engagement with the Continent. The seven states which maintain territorial claims to Antarctic – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – all operate research stations within ‘their’ zones and, even today, fund more or less exclusively scientific research activities located therein. Equally, non-claimant states have used scientific activities and expeditions as a means to deny territorial claims.

Within the Antarctic, science has traditionally been viewed as a means of promoting the security of the region. The origins of modern cooperative and collaborative science can be found in the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY) – the third of thus far four events, which periodically punctuate the rhythm of Antarctic research. The ‘gentleman’s agreement’, proposed by Chile, that activities taking place during the IGY would not be used to support or deny territorial claims to Antarctic, permitted politics to be set aside, in favour of science. This principle was subsequently developed into the ultimate agreement to disagree over the sovereign status of Antarctic, as articulated in Article IV of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. In fact, the freedom of peaceful scientific research provides the foundation upon which the entire Antarctic Treaty system rests. Science thus provided the necessary lubricant for a conflict free Antarctic. However, science was seldom, if ever, apolitical and, in the post Antarctic Treaty period, did not replace political rivalry so much as to emerge as a ‘subtle new form of geopolitics in Antarctic.’

Science and the 1959 Antarctic Treaty 

That Antarctic is a continent devoted primarily to scientific investigation is evident from the preamble to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Antarctic science is similarly prioritised by the 1991 Environmental Protocol, which permits exemptions to the rules prohibiting interference with Antarctic native fauna and flora and limiting access to vulnerable areas. Moreover, and arguably more significantly, Article IX(2) of the Antarctic Treaty deliberately institutionalises a co-dependent relationship between the principles of science and the pragmatism of politics. States acceding to the Antarctic Treaty must demonstrate their ‘interest in Antarctic by conducting substantial scientific research activity there, such as the establishment of a scientific station or the despatch of a scientific expedition’ in order to participate in decision-making at Antarctic Treaty meetings. Scientific research was thus deliberately chosen as the currency or ticket through which entry to the Antarctic management club was bought, and it is research that constitutes ‘symbolic capital’ within the Antarctic Treaty system. An inevitable consequence of this is that Antarctic science became not just the means through which politics is mediated, but political in itself. In the past this has led to criticisms of the quality and indeed the necessity of individual Antarctic research programmes. For example, it was noted that in 1983 Chile supported 201 scientists and other staff at its peninsula stations, resulting in the publication of two scientific papers. Argentina managed a marginally more respectable eighteen scientific papers with 254 personnel whilst the UK deployed 90 personnel and produced 181 scientific papers and articles that year. Even today, USA, UK, Australia and Germany, produce over sixty percent of all Antarctic research papers. Furthermore, the scientific credentials requirement associated with becoming a consultative party led to significant tension during the 1980s and allegations that the Antarctic Treaty comprised an exclusive club for the rich and powerful states. Whilst tensions eased as the requirements were relaxed in the 1990s – in particular with the recognition that states did not need to establish a permanent research station to meet the requirements of Article IX (2) – and, as a consequence, several developing state parties attained consultative status, allegations of exclusivity have not been entirely expunged.

Abusing the Scientific Rhetoric 

Antarctic science has traditionally been dependent upon public funding and the very nature of Antarctic science requires states to ‘occupy’ Antarctic through the construction of research stations, camps and other forms of infrastructure such as aircraft runways. Science and politics thus form an inevitable, if at times unhappy, union. It is therefore unsurprising that states are tempted to take advantage of this union, and to use and abuse science in order to achieve national policy aims. The seven claimant states have promoted and funded Antarctic science as means of consolidating their territorial claims to the continent. Britain was arguably the first state to exploit political capital from scientific research when it instituted the Discovery Investigations in the 1920s in order to obtain information on whale stocks in the Southern Ocean. Whilst ostensibly a research expedition ‘for the benefit of mankind’, the early Discovery voyages were undoubtedly also designed to support Britain’s claim in Antarctic and its regulation and taxation of whaling taking place within the region. In response to Argentina’s claim to the Antarctic Peninsula asserted in 1943, Britain dispatched a secret expedition to Antarctic, code-named Operation Tabarin, which whilst organised by the Navy, included a number of scientists. Although the relationship between science and national interest was officially severed during the 1957-1958 IGY, it never disappeared completely, as illustrated by the fact that British Antarctic Survey (BAS) funding was substantially increased during the period following the Falklands War at a time of more general financial stringency. Australia similarly made political capital from its early scientific research activities in Antarctic, and senior scientific officers working for Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) candidly acknowledged that ANARE was established in 1947 for purely political reasons; to support Australia’s territorial claim to Antarctic in light of Norwegian and US activities within the region in the 1930s and 1940s. The utilisation of science for political purposes and national interest is by no means the preserve of the seven claimant states. Both the US and the (then) USSR had reserved their respective positions with respect to making a territorial claim to Antarctic, and science was thus not the only motivation for the US expeditions Operation Highjump in the 1940s and Operation Deepfreeze in the 1950s or the Soviet construction of a permanent observatory in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas region. Both the US and the USSR used science as a means to ensure their active involvement in the development of an international regime for Antarctic. Today, using science to maintain an ‘active and influential’ presence on the continent in order to demonstrate leadership and for reasons of domestic security is a central feature of US Antarctic policy.

That the political nature of Antarctic science has not at any point seriously threatened the security of the Antarctic regime or the continent more generally, can be ascribed to the success of the Antarctic Treaty. Whilst Antarctic science today is undoubtedly much less politically motivated than in the early days of the Antarctic Treaty, the co-dependent relationship between science and politics nevertheless still exists. Unless the parties to the Antarctic Treaty resolve the sovereignty dispute over the continent and choose to break the institutional link between scientific activities and active political participation in the management of Antarctic, the relationship between science, politics and rhetoric will no doubt persist for the foreseeable future.

Science and Resource Exploitation

Antarctic security is no longer defined solely in terms of territorial disputes. Today, competition over resources constitutes an equal, if not greater threat, to the security of the continent and the wider region. Far from being sequestered from questions of resource exploitation, much of Antarctic science plays a role in facilitating resource development. Geological surveys are a necessary pre-requisite for minerals exploitation for example, and the science of oceanography comprises an integral component of the continental shelf claims process. Although references to scientific research are both prominent and numerous in the Antarctic Treaty, the term is nowhere defined in either the Treaty or the 1991 Environmental Protocol. Disputes over the very nature of scientific research and its implications to the wider security of the region are manifestly illustrated by bioprospecting.

Antarctic’s harsh natural environment provides the habitat for extremophiles and it is the unique adaptations of these species that may have applications for pharmaceutical, agriculture, waste management, food preservation and cosmetics industries. In 2010, the Antarctic Biological Prospecting Database listed 185 records of research and commercial products derived from biological resources found within the Antarctic region and, by 2004, more than 40 patents have been granted in relation to Antarctic organisms. The prominence and prevalence of bioprospecting is undeniably demonstrated by the fact that demand for krill in the twenty-first century is no longer driven by its potential as a food source but as a consequence of its potential application within pharmaceutical industries. However, despite confirming that the Antarctic Treaty system is the appropriate framework for the regulation of Antarctic bioprospecting, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) has thus far made little progress in developing guidance for both the scientific and product development aspects of bioprospecting. With the failure to define biological prospecting the probability of conflict also remains. Moreover, scientists’ reluctance to share knowledge in connection with bioprospecting research may also have implications for the principles of information exchange and collaboration; it may lead to reduced cooperation in other areas of scientific research. Furthermore, the absence of an Antarctic-specific bioprospecting regime opens the door to the prospect that other treaties and organisations may step in to develop rules of application to research activities taking place within the Antarctic region. Biological prospecting is currently under active consideration within the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, the Ad-hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group established by the General Assembly to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (the Working Group) and under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Moreover, the recently adopted 2010 Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing is of application only to genetic resources located within the jurisdiction of states, and thus, apparently inapplicable to Antarctic.

Science and Regulatory Lacunae 

The security of the Antarctic regime is, to an extent, predicated on the fact that activities located within the Antarctic are more or less exclusively regulated by Antarctic Treaty system instruments. One area of scientific research which, whilst located within the Antarctic region is nevertheless the subject of developing regulatory controls within an external regime, is ocean fertilisation. Currently at the research stage, ocean fertilisation is undeniably controversial, and scientists disagree over the likely impacts of fertilisation techniques on marine ecosystems and climate change. Although several fertilisation experiments have been conducted in the Southern Ocean to date, only one has been the subject of environmental evaluation under the 1991 Environmental Protocol, and fertilisation activities not been subject to serious discussion within either the ATCM or the Committee on Environmental Protection (CEP). By contrast, ocean fertilisation has been addressed by the parties to the Convention on Biodiversity and, as a consequence of a resolution adopted in 2008 by the parties to the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention, will be made subject to rules and standards under the dumping at sea regime. Notably, there has been no attempt at collaboration between the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the ATCM in developing standards and guidance for fertilisation activities despite the fact that the very act of defining ‘legitimate scientific research’ limits the scope for responding to such research under the Antarctic Treaty system.

In the past, the Antarctic Treaty system has operated largely in isolation but these modus operandi is arguably no longer suited to the modern era within which the creation of institutional connections between regimes has become a standard and necessary form of interaction. This has already been recognised by the ATCM by the adoption of Resolution 5 in 2010, which creates procedural arrangements designed to coordinate initiatives within the IMO and the ATCM with respect to shipping safety. Ideally, the ATCM should build upon this initiative to facilitate the exchange of information, the development of collaborative initiatives and the adoption of joint regulations in connection with scientific activities.

Science and Environmental Security 

The concept of environmental security as applied to Antarctic, is commonly discussed in relation to the safety of vessels, environmental accidents, the introduction of non-native or invasive species, the impacts of tourism and climate change. Although the ‘destabilising potential of science’  is rare in reality, it is perhaps no better illustrated than by one of the most fascinating but also one of the most controversial areas of Polar research; the exploration of Lake Vostok. Lying beneath four kilometres of ice and covering an area of around 14,000 km2, Lake Vostok’s liquidity is believed to be maintained by the presence of geothermal heat, combined with the pressure and insulating properties of the ice-sheet located directly above. Remarkably, Lake Vostok is merely one of more than 145 known water bodies lying beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet, many of which are connected by rivers and streams that flow beneath the ice. It is estimated that Lake Vostok has been isolated for over 15 million years and, consequently, any life found within the lake is likely to be uniquely adapted to cope with its cold temperature, high pressure and low light conditions. Climatology rather than limnology was the original motivation for drilling into Lake Vostok, which was initiated in 1990, temporarily halted between 1998 and 2005 and resumed in 2006. Technological challenges necessitating a new bore hole to be drilled at the lower level of the ice-sheet, and unconfirmed reports suggested that Russian scientists succeeded in penetrating the lake in February 2012. The principal risk associated with the penetration of Antarctic subglacial environment arises from contamination that risk compromising the environmental integrity of this unique ecosystem. Russia has dismissed contamination fears and has asserted that the pressure within Lake Vostok will ensure that, once penetrated, water will rise up from the lake, freeze in the borehole and thus act as a barrier to prevent chemicals and microbes from entering the lake. Whilst the exploration of Lake Vostok without doubt represents the thrilling potential of Antarctic research, it also demonstrates the limitations of the Antarctic Treaty system to secure the environmental integrity of the region. The Russian strategy for the penetration of Lake Vostok has been subject to stringent criticism from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), individual state parties and the Intersessional Contact Group (ICG), which was established to examine the draft Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) submitted by Russia to the ATCM in 2002. In an unprecedented step the US National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned, in 2007, a report in order to develop an overall subglacial aquatic research strategy. Moreover, SCAR, through its Subglacial Antarctic Lake Exploration (SALE) programme, has developed a SCAR code of conduct on subglacial lakes, which was presented at the 2011 meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection (CEP). Antarctic benefits from some of the most stringent environmental controls of application to any region. Designated a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’ the 1991 Environmental Protocol obliges all activities located within the Antarctic Treaty area to comply with its requirements. Russia circulated a draft CEE for water sampling at Lake Vostok in 2002 and a second, revised draft CEE, in 2003. A CEE is required to include a description of the proposed activity, an analysis of all actual and potential impacts associated with the activity, the identification of knowledge gaps and consideration of alternative options. In comparison with most other international environmental impact assessment requirements as well as many national processes, the Protocol requirements are comprehensive and wide-ranging. Nevertheless, three distinct weaknesses undermine environmental impact assessment as it operates in practice in the Antarctic. These are all demonstrated by research activities associated with the penetration of Lake Vostok.

First, the process of impact assessment relies largely on self assessment with relatively limited opportunities for analysis and critique at the international level. Whilst the CEE must be circulated to all Treaty parties, and since 2007 is considered by an ICG, which reports to the annual meeting of the CEP, there is no official process for the examination of Initial Environmental Evaluation (IEEs). Moreover, whilst parties may comment on draft CEEs there is no opportunity for the ATCM to require that proposed activities comply with mandatory conditions or to veto those activities altogether. As noted above, the Lake Vostok CEE was subject to significant criticism at the 2003 ATCM by SCAR, individual states and the ICG established to evaluate the CEE. In particular, the CEE was condemned for failing to address all potential impacts, for failing to identify knowledge gaps as well as insufficiently considering monitoring and contingency measures. Russia has yet to submit a final CEE although it eventually responded to some, but not all, of the concerns raised in a short Working Paper, submitted to the 2010 ATCM.

Secondly, the terms ‘minor’ and ‘transitory’, are nowhere defined in the Protocol and, inevitably, subject to divergent interpretation by states. Whilst the Russian CEE concluded that the penetration of Lake Vostok involved no more than a minor impact on the environment, the ICG found that it was difficult to see how such a determination had been made, and that Russia’s conclusions were largely unsupported by scientific evidence. Failing to agree on a definition of these key terms, the ATCM was forced to acknowledge in 2005 that ‘minor’ and ‘transitory’ should be defined on a case-by-case, site specific basis.

Finally, the controversy over the penetration of Lake Vostok is in fact indicative of a broader problem within the 1991 Environmental Protocol: the virtual absence of long-term holistic strategic and spatial planning. Despite attempts initiated by SCAR and the NSF to develop frameworks for the coordinated exploration of Antarctic subglacial environments, the Antarctic Treaty system as yet provides no tools to facilitate a more strategic approach to planning scientific activities within the Antarctic Treaty area. The largely ambivalent response to the Lake Vostok research project by the ATCM contrasts markedly with its close scrutiny of India’s CEE for its proposed research station located in the Larsemann Hills.


That the Antarctic Treaty system has, over the last 50 years, proven itself more or less equal to the task of managing risks associated with scientific research, is testament to the strength of the principles relating to freedom of research, information exchange, open inspection and the sovereignty compromise which underpin the Antarctic Treaty, and to the sophisticated environmental regime developed under the 1991 Environmental Protocol.

However, to maintain environmental, political and regime security within the region, over the next fifty or more years, the Antarctic Treaty system must strengthen existing, and develop new, legal and institutional tools for the management of Antarctic scientific research. It is, nevertheless, beyond dispute that both science and scientific rhetoric provides the principal means by which Antarctic’s peaceful status has thus far been secured.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *