By Fiona Wilton, Sacred Lands and Waters Lead at The Gaia Foundation. Originally published in SEA Magazine.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder when you think of Antarctica – snowy landscapes, ice formations, and Southern Ocean waters teeming with fish and marine life. But do we have the humility, imagination and courage to protect this frozen continent which is so vital to Earth’s climate and ocean systems?
“Beautiful” and “magnificent” are typical reactions people have to an encounter with or image of Antarctica. These awe-inspiring lands, ice and waters – covering 10% of the Earth’s surface – play a vital role for the climate and for all forms of life to flourish. Their ice acts as a shield, reflecting sunlight and heat back into outer space. Its ocean is a huge carbon sink.
Since 1959, governance, scientific research, and environmental protection have been regulated through the Antarctic Treaty System. 46 signatory countries, comprising around 80% of the world’s population, have committed to ensuring that Antarctica “be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. It’s a sad irony that this is one of few places in the world today not touched by war.
The image we conjure up, however, of a pristine white sheet draped over the planet’s southern pole, belies a sombre truth. Antarctica is a barometer for climate breakdown and growth-fuelled economies. New records are being set, with heatwaves up to 40°C above average and shrinking formations of sea ice. Many harmful activities such as the burning of fossil fuels arise outside the Treaty area. Shifts in the habitats of commercially valuable marine life generate new geopolitical tensions, and states with extraction interests block conservation efforts such as marine protected areas. Abandoned fishing gear, plastics and “see it before it melts” cruises are escalating.
While we limit ourselves to viewing Antarctica as a “resource” to be used by humans without compunction, an icy wilderness to be conquered and photographed, the desecration continues. It is time to approach and respect Antarctica as a living place with agency.
It’s time to open our eyes to the hues of blue, peach, rose, gold and green, that lie within Antarctica’s white landscape; to examine our relationship with Antarctica and existing governance systems; and to (re)discover how to coexist harmoniously with the other beings with whom we co-evolved and upon whom we depend for life and wellbeing.
A growing movement has launched a call for the Rights of Antarctica, based on principles for all Antarctic beings such as the rights to exist and the freedom to be wild.
Inspired? Find out more about this global initiative securing a voice and rights for Antarctica: