Australia’s subantarctic World Heritage

As late as 1997, the world’s subantarctic islands were unrepresented among World Heritage properties. The nearest the UNESCO World Heritage Committee had come to acknowledging the importance of these oceanic outposts was the inscription of Gough Island (UK) in 1995, in cool temperate latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean. Australia’s successful nomination of Macquarie Island and Heard and McDonald Islands in 1997 was followed by inscription of New Zealand’s five subantarctic island groups in 1998.

In the early 1990s Australia determined that Macquarie Island deserved a place on the World Heritage List. Its initial nomination, mainly on the basis of its biological qualities, notably its exceptional animal life, was unsuccessful. In 1996, the Australian Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, determined that both Macquarie Island (part of the state of Tasmania) and the remote Australian territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands deserved to be listed.

A two-month project to prepare separate nominations for each island groups involved input from Australian Antarctic Division staff (including scientists) and an array of other authorities on the islands’ physical and biological properties from universities and other research institutions around Australia and overseas. The resulting nomination, supported by photographs and film, was presented to the World Heritage Committee in June 1996.

At its 1996 meeting in Mexico, the Committee deferred a decision on both nominations, requesting further comparative information on each. At its next meeting in Naples in December 1997, the Committee agreed that both properties warranted inscription on the World Heritage List.

The criteria for inscription vary. The three World Heritage criteria addressed by the nominations were…

  • Criterion 1: Outstanding examples of major stages of the earth’s biological or geological history;
  • Criterion 2: Outstanding examples of significant continuing processes in the evolution of ecosystems and communities of plants and animals; and
  • Criterion 3: Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty.

Heard and McDonald Islands were accepted on the basis of Criterion 1, mainly derived from the islands’ volcanic origins and the fact that they contain the only currently active subantarctic volcanoes, and Criterion 2, mainly because they remain free of human-introduced species.

In the case of Macquarie Island, the nomination was accepted because the island is an outstanding example of exposed ocean crust (against Criterion 1) and because of its exceptional natural beauty (Criterion 3).

The two island groups remain the only subantarctic lands on the World Heritage list.

Peter Boyer
Information Services Manager,
Australian Antarctic Division