Environmental protection in Antarctica

In the Antarctic Treaty, as well as agreeing on the exclusively peaceful use of the region and on research cooperation, the States agreed to meet regularly to discuss measures to protect Antarctica’s flora and fauna. This right to protection was strengthened further in 1998, when the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protocol) entered into force, designating Antarctica as a natural reserve. Under this Protocol, the Parties are now responsible for protecting Antarctica and its ecosystems. At the same time, the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), which advises the Contracting Parties on environmental issues in Antarctica, was established.

Protection of Antarctica anchored in national law

In Germany, protecting the Antarctic environment is a top priority. Germany has incorporated the provisions of the Protocol into national law through the Act Implementing the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (AIEP). The German Environment Agency, as the national competent authority, issues permits for Germany’s activities in Antarctica, which must comply with the strict requirements concerning protection of the continent’s vulnerable environment. The permits are always granted on the basis of the latest scientific findings, which are used to predict and assess the environmental impact of the activities concerned. In order to guarantee compliance with the legal provisions and guidelines, the permits are dependent on certain conditions and provisos. However, there are still knowledge gaps in connection with the assessment of the environmental impact. In order to close these gaps, the German Environment Agency initiates and supports research activities. In addition, regular inspections are conducted on the ground to check that the provisions of the Environment Protocol and the AIEP and the national permits issued are being observed.

Diversity under threat

The southern continent and the Antarctic Ocean surrounding it possess a unique beauty. Both are home to many species. The Antarctic ice cap is also the world’s largest freshwater reservoir and a valuable archive of the Earth’s climate history. Climate change and global warming therefore no doubt pose the greatest threats today. Other threats to the unique ecosystem include ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and the introduction and establishment of non-native species. This is exacerbated by pollutants that are transported to Antarctica from higher latitudes. Moreover, despite extensive protection efforts, humans directly leave their mark on the continent – through tourism, research and logistics, for example. The long-term impact of these activities cannot yet be fully estimated.

These threats from many different sources show that Antarctica and its ecosystems need to be protected by both regional and global measures. All efforts to halt climate change also benefit Antarctica. The Environment Protocol  stipulates that there be a prior assessment of the impact of all proposed activities in Antarctica on the continent’s environment. The German Environment Agency, as the competent authority, therefore strives for effective implementation of the AIEP on the basis of the best available knowledge and promotes environmentally friendly, non-invasive methods, procedures and technologies in order to minimise the impact of activities on Antarctica’s assets. Generally, Germany promotes environmentally friendly research and logistics as well as the development of a coherent network of protected areas in Antarctica on land and sea.

Research initiatives for the southern continent

Of course, wide-ranging research initiatives also play a role in protecting the Antarctic environment. They document and assess the impact of activities and threats caused by climate change, tourism, shipping, waste, underwater noise pollution and pollutants. They also help to predict future development. The goal of the research initiatives is to design measures to prevent damage to Antarctica’s assets in the future. Ultimately the aim is to ensure the long-term protection of the species and ecosystems of Antarctica. With this in mind, the creation of scientific foundations needs to continue in order to facilitate the development of monitoring programmes throughout Antarctica which will enable the status quo to be ascertained and environmental effects to be identified at an early stage. Only on this basis will it be possible to protect creatures and ecosystems in the long term, whether through sustainable tourism, adaptation to climate change or effective protection from underwater noise pollution.

First German initiative for protected areas

Germany is working generally to promote a comprehensive network of protected areas in Antarctica and the surrounding ocean regions. To this end, the German Environment Agency is currently implementing a project which aims to identify areas to form an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) in future, with the support of other authorities with specialist knowledge of Antarctica. The goal is to draft a protected area proposal, the first initiated by Germany, within the framework of the ATCM. The proposed areas must first undergo a standardised prior assessment, which is to be presented at the ATCM 2022 in Berlin. If the proposed areas are approved by the Committee for Environmental Protection, the next step will be to elaborate management plans for the respective ASPA areas.

Engagement on a wide range of environmental issues

Moreover, the German Environment Agency is involved in extensive research projects on the subject of underwater noise pollution with the aim of reducing the stress to which marine mammals are exposed by especially loud activities. These projects have very different focuses: one is examining the hearing capacity of penguins, another is investigating the extent of the disturbance caused by hydroacoustic measuring instruments. Another project is developing a basis for a sound protection concept linked to exposure thresholds. To demonstrate the problem of underwater noise pollution, there will be a sound chair  available during the ATCM in Berlin, inviting the delegates to immerse themselves in the ocean and its soundscape and experience for themselves what sounds are like under water and how different creatures perceive them.

All these examples by no means cover the whole range of issues concerning Antarctica addressed by the German Environment Agency. Other projects focus on long-term environmental monitoring in Maxwell Bay and on King George Island and on the monitoring of penguin colonies via satellite. The Agency also strives to promote comprehensive and sustainable tourism management in Antarctica and strict rules of conduct for visitors.