Antarctica, Planet Earth

Back in 1933, when Australia took responsibility for a territorial claim on some 42 percent of the Antarctic continent, protecting the environment was low on the political agenda and not seen as an important issue by the general public. As the environment assumed a higher social and political profile over the decades, Australia has developed its own agenda for protecting its slice of Antarctica.

Antarctica is not isolated from the rest of the world, and environmental problems that result from activities thousands of kilometres from Antarctica can be felt or measured in Antarctica and its surrounding oceans.

We know that Antarctica plays an enormous role in the global climate system: we are understanding, and now beginning to predict, what natural and human induces changes to global climate will do to Antarctica and consequently, the globe.

The illegal toothfish fishery is a significant human pressure on Antarctic ecosystems and new and emerging fisheries in the Southern Ocean will require the use of the precautionary approach to fisheries management to ensure ecological sustainability. Australia has taken a strong and active role in efforts by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU).

Activities on the Antarctic continent itself can also become the source of environmental impact. The Australian Antarctic Division is implementing sound environmental practices in all its areas of operations and its human impacts research program focuses scientific effort on the impacts of human activities in Antarctica and on what needs to be done to repair any past damage. For example, we have stopped or changed bad environmental practices of the past, and are using advanced research and technology to clean up disused waste sites.

This edition of Australian Antarctic Magazine concentrates on the role Australia plays in managing the environment in Antarctica. No-one wants future generations to find Antarctica ravaged and despoiled. Our presence in Antarctica over many decades, our custodianship of the Australian Antarctic Territory and our role as an active partner in the Antarctic Treaty System provides us with an overwhelming obligation to understand, value and protect Antarctica. To this end, Australia has a well established regulatory framework for all its Antarctic operations and scientific or operational activity must be subject to an environmental impact assessment before it can proceed.

Gill Slocum and Lyn Goldsworthy show us that Australia played a leading role in the creation of the environmental annex to the Antarctic Treaty (the ‘Madrid Protocol') which defines the obligations of Antarctic Treaty parties to protect the Antarctic environment. The AAD’s Environmental Manager, Tom Maggs, covers the work of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), the Antarctic Treaty forum at which environmental matters are discussed. Tom and Kim Pitt discuss implementation of an environmental policy for Australia’s Antarctic program, the cornerstone of an Environmental Management System that will come on line this year and will track all the elements of our EIA and operational compliance. The AAD’s legal adviser, Wendy Fletcher, has provided an overview of the legal regime affecting Antarctica and how this is translated into Australian law.

In earlier times one of the methods of dealing with Antarctic waste was to bulldoze it on to sea ice so that it would sink into the sea when the ice melted; spills weren’t seen to be important when fuel-oil was being transferred to storage tanks or into vehicles. Today, environmentally sound waste management, prevention of marine pollution and environmentally-safe fuel handling are high on our agenda. We seek to reduce impacts by continuing to improve processes for the job in hand, for managing accidents when they occur, and revising contingency plans — even acting out real-time scenarios for environmental and other emergencies.

Articles by Bruce Hull and Peter Boyer discuss Australia’s increasing awareness of Antarctic and subantarctic heritage and the steps we are taking to protect it. Places such as sea bird breeding sites and moss stands, specially protected for their environmental features, are subject to management plans drawn up in consultation with stakeholders, as Ewan McIvor explains. In 2002, for the first time, the Australian Antarctic Territory was included in the Australian State of the Environment report. Lee Belbin provides information about the evaluation process, and how what we might do to provide information for the next five-yearly report.

Much has been achieved in recent years, but we know the task is ongoing. We are working with our providers to reduce the amount of packaging materials that must accompany us to Antarctica. Projects in hand on waste water treatment and wind-powered electricity generation will help shrink our footprint in Antarctica. Our helicopter contractors are working with us to define flight paths to minimise disruption to bird and seal colonies. To eliminate any possible disturbance to elephant seal breeding at Macquarie Island we have changed the time of the 2002 resupply and changeover to March — well after the pupping season.

While the ‘Antarctic factor', as usual, had a part in the 2001–2002 field season, we have achieved much in the Australian Antarctic program. Elsewhere in the Australian Antarctic Magazine you will find out about the scientific achievements of the season and about the besetment of the Polar Bird. The spirit of team-work has overcome adversity, leaving Australia’s Antarctic Program in good heart, rugged health and ready for the future!

Dr Tony Press
Australian Antarctic Division