The Antarctic Region Is Set to Witness More Regulatory Measures

Amidst the evolving landscape of the Antarctic region, characterized by the growing geopolitical interests of major powers, the urgent imperative of scientific research in the background of climate change, and a notable rise in Antarctic tourism, the need for enhanced regulatory measures has become increasingly evident. Against this backdrop, the convening of the 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the 26th Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) Meeting in Kerala holds significance. These gatherings serve as crucial forums for addressing the multifaceted challenges and opportunities that shape the future of Antarctica, encompassing geopolitical considerations, environmental preservation, and the promotion of sustainable tourism practices.

The 46th ATCM and the 26th CEP Meeting began on May 20 in Kochi, Kerala, marking a significant event in global efforts to sustainably manage and protect the Antarctic region. These meetings, organized by the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Goa, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India, draw over 350 representatives from nearly 40 countries, demonstrating a collective commitment to addressing the challenges facing this fragile and unique continent.

Key Agenda Items at the ATCM 

The 46th ATCM agenda is comprehensive, encompassing: Strategic Planning – developing long-term strategies for the sustainable management of Antarctica and its resources; Policy, Legal, and Institutional Operations – addressing the governance frameworks that ensure effective implementation of the Antarctic Treaty; Biodiversity Prospecting – regulating the exploration of biological resources and ensuring they are used sustainably; Inspections and Information Exchange – enhancing transparency and cooperation through regular inspections and sharing of scientific and logistical data;  Research Collaboration and Capacity Building – promoting international scientific cooperation and building research capacities among member nations;  Addressing Climate Change – developing strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change on Antarctica; Tourism Framework Development – establishing comprehensive regulations to manage the increasing tourism activities; Awareness Promotion – educating and raising awareness about the importance of preserving Antarctica. 

The meeting also features lectures by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which will present the latest scientific findings and research initiatives.  

Key Agenda Items at the CEP

The 26th CEP agenda focuses on  Environmental Evaluation and Impact Assessment – assessing the current state of the Antarctic environment and the impacts of various activities; Climate Change Response – formulating responses to the environmental changes driven by climate change; Area Protection and Management Plans – developing and implementing plans to protect specific areas, including marine spatial protection; Conservation of Biodiversity – ensuring the conservation of Antarctic flora and fauna.

India’s Role and Contributions

India has been a Consultative Party to the Antarctic Treaty since 1983, giving it significant authority in overseeing scientific exploration and environmental protection in Antarctica. This status allows India to propose and vote on decisions during the ATCM, and participate in administration, research, environmental safeguards, and logistical cooperation. India also has the capacity to establish research stations, conduct scientific programmes, enforce environmental regulations, and access shared scientific data from other Antarctic Treaty members.

Dr. M. Ravichandran, Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, highlighted India’s leadership and commitment to preserving Antarctica’s ecological integrity. He emphasized the need for comprehensive tourism regulations to ensure sustainable exploration, given the rising number of visitors to the continent. In 2022 India enacted its Antarctica legislation aiming to implement the necessary measures to enforce the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The legislation seeks to protect the Antarctic environment and its dependent ecosystems, regulate various activities in the region, and address related matters.

Tourism Framework and Environmental Concerns

For the first time, a specialized working group has been established to devise a tourism framework for Antarctica. This initiative addresses the rapid expansion of tourism activities and the associated environmental risks. Shailesh Nayak, Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, pointed out the need for regulatory measures to manage high-risk adventure tourism and ensure liability protocols. The framework aims to mitigate the impact of increasing tourist numbers through enforceable rules and regulations. 

Claire Christian from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) stressed the urgency of adopting regulations to protect Antarctica’s biodiversity. The decision to form this working group was driven by a proposal from several nations at the 45th ATCM in April 2023, advocating for comprehensive regulation of tourism and non-governmental activities.  

A study in 2024 revealed a dramatic increase in Antarctic visitors, from 8,000 in 1993-1994 to 105,000 in 2022-2023, primarily arriving by ship. Concerns include the discharge of microplastics, gray water, black carbon emissions from cruise ships, and the introduction of invasive species by tourists. During the 2022-23 season, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) reported 32,730 cruise-only visitors, 71,346 landed visitors, and 821 deep-field visitors, underscoring the need for stringent regulations.

India’s Scientific Initiatives

India is set to announce its plan to develop a new research station, Maitri-2, in Antarctica during the 46th ATCM. Dr. M. Ravichandran revealed that the aging Maitri station, built 35 years ago, will be reconstructed. The new facility, Maitri-2, will replace the current Maitri station, transforming the latter into a summer camp and a designated monument. This development features India’s commitment to advancing its scientific research capabilities in Antarctica, ensuring that its facilities meet modern standards.   

It may be noted, India currently operates two research stations in Antarctica: Maitri and Bharti. The first station, Dakshin Gangotri, was established in 1983 but had to be abandoned due to sinking in the snow. Bharti, built 12 years ago, is a state-of-the-art facility.

The 46th ATCM and 26th CEP meetings highlight India’s growing role as a responsible global stakeholder in preserving Antarctica. Through open dialogue, collaboration, and consensus-building, India aims to uphold the principles of the Antarctic Treaty and contribute to the sustainable management of one of Earth’s last pristine wilderness areas. 

Antarctica, the fifth-largest continent, occupies a vast portion of the Antarctic region. This icy expanse, situated in the remote Southern Hemisphere, is defined by the Antarctic Convergence—a fluctuating boundary where cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the world’s oceans.

Despite its harsh conditions and lack of an indigenous population, Antarctica hosts human settlements where scientists and their support teams conduct year-round research. Known as one of the world’s premier ‘natural laboratories,’ it draws more than 30,000 tourists annually who come to witness its unique features. Its significance for scientific research is profound, especially due to its critical influence on global climate and ocean systems. 

Although fragile and highly vulnerable, Antarctica is thought to possess substantial deposits of oil and essential minerals, drawing the geopolitical interest of major global powers. By addressing key issues such as tourism regulation, environmental protection, and scientific collaboration, ATCM and CEP meetings – scheduled up to 30 May – set the stage for continued international cooperation in safeguarding the Antarctic for future generations.

The author, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU. 

[Header image: ATCM 46th Meeting. Credit NCPOR]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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