Germany and Antarctica

Antarctica is a region of extremes: inhospitable, hostile to life and, at least to Europeans, impossibly far away. And yet it plays a crucial role for life on the entire planet. It has a significant influence on the global climate system and at the same time functions as an important early warning system for climate change. The increase in temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula over recent decades was around five times higher than the worldwide average. Antarctica is also significant because it is home to unique and virtually untouched ecosystems, with enormous biodiversity on land and in particular in its waters.

Its global significance and unique habitats have led Germany and others to pay close attention to Antarctica. Germany has been a participant in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) for decades, taking on responsibility for preserving Antarctica as a continent dedicated to peace, science and environmental protection. As a steadfast partner within the Antarctic Treaty system, Germany plays a major role in researching the environment and complex life of this unique, unspoilt region, and protecting them in the interest of humanity as a whole.

Active since the nineteenth century

Only when you know something, you can protect it. Germany has a long tradition of Antarctic research and was a leading organiser of the first International Polar Year in 1882-1883. While Antarctica was a relatively minor consideration at the time, the Polar Year and its premise of international scientific cooperation were pioneering nevertheless. German researchers, meanwhile, led significant Antarctic expeditions early on, yielding a wealth of scientific findings. Among them were the geographer Erich von Drygalski with the research ship Gauss and the geophysicist Wilhelm Filchner on board the Deutschland in the early twentieth century. Germany also took part in the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58, with which the third International Polar Year was launched. International scientific cooperation continued in 1959 with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, which stipulates that Antarctica should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and that freedom of research in this area should serve the interests of science and the progress of humanity as a whole. The German Democratic Republic became a Contracting Party to the Antarctic Treaty in 1974 and eventually a Consultative Party in 1987. The Federal Republic of Germany joined as a Contracting Party in 1979 and became a Consultative Party in 1981. It has been entitled to participate in decision-making since then.

Cooperation with the other Parties to the Antarctic Treaty is a cornerstone of Germany’s commitment to Antarctica. German research activities and contributions are coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung (AWI) in Bremerhaven. The AWI supplies the necessary equipment, manages logistics and also runs the Neumayer Station III, which was opened in February 2009 and operates all year round, as well as the research ship Polarstern. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources researches Antarctic geology, while the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is responsible for Earth observation and space research. The German Environment Agency has the task of issuing licences for all of these German activities in Antarctica. It also coordinates with the competent authorities of other Parties to this end.

International cooperation

From research to logistics and from tourism to cooperation within the Antarctic Treaty system, Germany relies on ongoing dialogue and in-depth discussion with its international partners. It works with them to plan its research projects and expeditions. It shares infrastructure, equipment and expertise and provides its data, analyses and models to the international scientific community. It is actively involved in the work of the Antarctic Treaty system’s various bodies and cooperates with the other Parties at all levels. This joint interdisciplinary work has been instrumental in shaping the current understanding of Antarctica and beyond. Decision-makers in politics, business and wider society benefit from this knowledge as they work to solve the acute challenges facing our planet and protect its natural treasures.

Establishing a network of protected areas

In this spirit, Germany places great value on establishing a network of protected areas in Antarctica – both at sea and on land. It has thus been working with the European Union since 2012 to set up a Marine Protected Area in the Weddell Sea under the aegis of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). At the same time, an ongoing research project aims to identify regions on land that are worthy of protection in order to nominate these as candidates for an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) initiated by Germany. Germany also has a particular interest in the Emperor penguin. This species is found only in Antarctica and faces acute risks due to climate change. It therefore requires additional special protection, and Germany plans to continue campaigning for this beyond the ATCM in 2022.

Commitment to sustainable tourism

Many tourists also visit Antarctica every year on board German cruise ships or yachts. At the ATCM, Germany advocates for environmentally responsible tourism management and regulations for sustainable tourism in order to minimise its impact on the continent’s sensitive ecosystems.