Climate, tourism ills of Antarctica take center stage in Md.

The Baltimore Sun

The Antarctic ice sheets are melting, the krill are disappearing, and tourists are tramping about on fragile penguin habitat.

For the next two weeks, those problems and more will land in Baltimore as the city hosts hundreds of diplomats, scientists and others attending the 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. That's the body that governs the use of Antarctica by the international community, protects its environment and promotes scientific research.

Nearly 400 people, including diplomats from 47 countries, will confer at the Baltimore Convention Center. It is the first time since 1979 that a U.S. city has hosted the meeting.

High on the agenda for the meeting's working groups and committees are rising concerns about threats to a fragile polar environment.

"People think of Antarctica as being a wasteland, but it's got a very diverse and teeming marine life," said Polly Penhale, a biologist with the National Science Foundation. She is the U.S. representative to the treaty's Committee for Environmental Protection.

The committee has tackled issues of fisheries conservation, marine pollution and the protection of marine mammals and migrating birds. Its work this week will focus on tourism's environmental impact and the unwanted introduction of non-native animal and plant species - from flour bugs to grasses.

Because of its unique environment, Antarctica has become a prime location for research in astronomy, geology, atmospheric science and particle physics.

Climate scientists also have a keen interest in Antarctica. Ice cores have revealed much of the planet's climate history, and the movement of vast ice sheets provides vivid evidence of warming in action. While the treaty organization does not formulate global climate policy, it does provide a platform for research that can inform policy made elsewhere.

"The polar regions are where the Earth kind of cools itself," said Scott Borg, director for Antarctic science at the National Science Foundation. "It's real important to understand how the polar regions are changing, and how that's going to affect the heat budget of the Earth."

For the U.S. delegation, a primary concern at the meeting will be the growing tourist pressure on the continent.

In 2007, a tourist ship struck an iceberg 50 miles off the Antarctic coast and began to sink, sending 154 passengers and crew scrambling into open lifeboats. A year later, another tour ship ran aground, and 89 passengers had to be rescued and flown to Chile.

And each Antarctic summer, thousands of tourists hit the beaches to mingle with the penguins and soak in the continent's bleak beauty.

"The Explorer, when it went down, left passengers out in the open ocean for four to five hours, in open lifeboats. And if the weather had been bad, it would have been a catastrophe," said Evan Bloom, deputy director of ocean and polar affairs at the State Department and head of the U.S. delegation.

The U.S. will press treaty signatories to endorse efforts by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization to enact stronger lifeboat standards for Antarctic waters, providing better protection for passengers. The conference will also address proposed upgrades for the older ships that operate in the Antarctic and the need for improved search-and-rescue capacity in the region.

To protect the coast from damage from the tens of thousands of tourists who visit each year, the U.S. is proposing limits on the number of people cruise ships can put ashore. The plan would prohibit ships carrying more than 500 passengers from letting them disembark. From smaller vessels, no more than 100 passengers could go ashore at a time, one ship at a time, with one guide for every 20 passengers.

The U.S. delegation also hopes to win support for a proposal to extend the zone of the Antarctic Treaty's jurisdiction over marine pollution from its present limit, at the 60th parallel, north to the "convergence zone," where cold Antarctic waters meet warmer northern currents.

"The [Antarctic] ecosystem extends at least to that convergence zone," Bloom said, and it is affected by ocean dumping and discharges from shipping. The proposal would have to be approved by the International Maritime Organization.

Concerns about the future of Antarctica began after World War II, as nations jockeyed for strategic advantage. Seven countries - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom - had made overlapping territorial claims to all but 15 percent of the land.

Twelve countries met in Washington in 1959 and signed the Antarctic Treaty, preserving all the land and ice shelves south of the 60th parallel for peaceful uses. No national claims to Antarctic territory can be acted on as long as the treaty is in force.

To manage the treaty, the signatories - now numbering 47 countries - meet annually to seek solutions to problems that arise. There are also observers from nongovernmental organizations.

In addition to tourism and environmental protection, the treaty system regulates the operations of research stations, and encourages and oversees scientific research proposals.

"The United States has a huge, historic interest in the Antarctic Treaty and was a leader in bringing it about," Bloom said.

"The treaty made it possible to have 50 years of peace and science" on the continent, he said. "It is one of the most successful diplomatic treaties in history."

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