This story currently appears as the lead feature in the latest edition of Oceanographic Magazine, a bi-monthly coffee-table collectible that publishes beautiful ocean conservation, exploration, and adventure stories.
Antarctica, Earth’s greatest wilderness, is not often the center of global political attention, but in 2021 the vast frozen continent and the Southern Ocean that encircles it are in the spotlight.
That’s thanks to a trifecta created by a momentous anniversary, an escalating planetary emergency, and an unmissable opportunity to achieve the greatest act of ocean protection in history.
As we celebrate 60 years since the Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961, scientists are warning that the climate crisis is pushing the southern polar region toward multiple, dangerous tipping points with global ramifications. But we also have a chance to make a real difference.
Sixty years ago, a common quest to protect the frozen continent thawed the Cold War just enough to allow its protagonists to set aside their territorial disputes, negotiate the Antarctic Treaty, and agree to dedicate everything south of 60 degrees south latitude to peace and science for all humanity. More than half a century later, it remains one of the world’s most successful international agreements and an inspiration for what cooperation can achieve—even, or perhaps especially, in a crisis. Will today’s multi-pronged crises of global heating, mass species extinctions, and deteriorating ocean health trigger the same solidarity when the 26 member states of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meet in October? I sure hope so. Because just like in 1961, every country, community, and citizen on this planet has a stake in the outcome.
For my family, this historic moment in the long fight for ocean protection has a special resonance. Next year it will be 50 years since my father and grandfather, Philippe and Jacques Cousteau, first set foot on Antarctica and were among the first people to ever dive beneath its ice. Their films delivered this most mysterious of places into the homes—and hearts—of millions of people for the first time. Always a trailblazer, even after that first voyage in 1972 my grandfather raised the alarm that heavy metal contamination and plastic waste were impacting Antarctica’s waters and wildlife. He understood at first sight both the fragility and critical importance of Antarctica. That’s why, in the 1980s, when the specter of mining threatened to breach the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, he helped rally a global campaign that—with the help of friendly governments—successfully blocked all mining exploitation and led to the entire continent being designated a natural reserve.
But now, 30 years after that pivotal victory, even greater threats demand far greater and faster global action. A recent study published in Nature, “The Paris Climate Agreement and future sea-level rise from Antarctica,” warns that if our greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates, by 2060 the already accelerating melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet—Earth’s largest land ice reservoir—will pass a point of no return, causing irreversible, disastrous global impacts. If we keep to this emissions pathway, no human intervention will be able to stop 17 to 21 centimeters of sea level rise from Antarctic ice melt alone by 2100. Meanwhile, at a more local level, industrial fishing of the tiny Antarctic krill that are the cornerstone of the global ocean food web is rising, as are the impacts of tourism and shipping.
And, every single day, billions of krill absorb huge quantities of carbon from the surface of the Southern Ocean and excrete it deep below, where it is stored away in one of our planet’s greatest carbon sinks. The fact that temperatures in Antarctica reached almost 20°C in 2020 should be a wake-up call for everyone. Because what happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica.
So now it is my turn—and immense privilege—to join a host of actors, artists, activists, scientists, and citizens in mobilizing a new global campaign to protect Antarctica, its waters, and its unique and wondrous wildlife. Together with my wife, Ashlan Gorse Cousteau, Antarctica2020, and a cabal of ocean conservation organisations, we are inviting everyone to #CallOnCCAMLR to take decisive, united action at their October 2021 meeting and vote to establish three MPAs—in East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Weddell Sea—that will protect almost 1 percent of the global ocean and create a buffer against climate change. Once again, people are rising up to save the icy foundations of our planet, and once again, our voices are being heard by key decision-makers.
Scientists are among those calling out the loudest. Because the science is clear: two profound environmental issues are challenging our very existence: climate change and biodiversity loss.
MPAs can provide our best line of defense against the disproportionate impacts of climate change in the region by removing the pressures of human activity, especially fishing, and giving vulnerable wildlife much needed breathing space. As the Southern Ocean is taking up to 40 percent of the total oceanic carbon uptake that is shielding us from the full force of climate change, offering it a ring of marine protection is the very least we could do.
Alarmed at the unfolding polar climate emergency, the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts gathered leading Antarctic scientists together earlier this year to consider how rapid changes in the Southern Ocean are impacting global climate and human and ecological systems, and what we need to do about it. The resulting report, “Climate Change and Southern Ocean Resilience,” published by the Wilson Center in June makes a compelling case for urgent action.
The report warns of the approach of imminent tipping points that could set in motion irreversible, rapid changes to Antarctica's biogeochemical cycles and its critical role in regulating the global climate. Five Southern Ocean processes that will cumulatively drive changes well beyond the Antarctic region are highlighted as high risk priorities: shifts in sea ice and ice sheet dynamics causing loss of critical habitats and biodiversity; changes in ocean chemistry causing acidification and disrupting food webs; rising ocean temperatures leading to ice shelf collapse and multi-meter sea level rise; changes to regional carbon sequestration through the biological carbon pump; and shifting ecosystem and species dynamics leading to biodiversity loss and changes in species’ geographical distributions.
It’s a formidable list of threats. But rather than be daunted, the experts propose a four-step program for building Southern Ocean resilience. First, faster and deeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors and geographies to avoid near-term tipping points. Second, creating a circumpolar network of MPAs around Antarctica to protect biodiversity and restore ecosystem services. Third, incorporating climate change risks to strengthen existing ecosystem-based fishing policies. And fourth, re-emphasizing a precautionary approach to decision-making in the Southern Ocean to prevent irreversible changes. The first task is the responsibility of every country and company on Earth; for the other three the onus falls on CCAMLR.
Which brings us back to the all-important meeting in October. Those of us who have eagerly anticipated these annual meetings in the past know that counting on CCAMLR involves fleeting bursts of ecstasy—like when they voted to create the immense Ross Sea MPA in 2016—amid a sea of agony and disappointment, like every year since then, when MPA proposals have been sunk by just a few dissenting votes. But this year is different. This year the eyes of the world are on CCAMLR as never before.
And, crucially, some of these eyes belong to the leaders of CCAMLR member states—including President Biden. He joined the call on CCAMLR back in April when the White House declared emphatically: “The United States is calling on all CCAMLR members to adopt these marine protected areas at this year’s meeting.” The U.S. then joined the EU and 14 other CCAMLR members in a strong Ministerial Joint Declaration encouraging the “swift adoption by CCAMLR” of the three proposed MPAs and a united, resounding “call on all CCAMLR members to act as soon as possible to conserve the Southern Ocean’s unique biodiversity.” A pledge to fully support the Southern Ocean MPAs even made it into the official G7 Summit Communique in June as part of a new G7 2030 Nature Compact supporting the global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Most CCAMLR members now proactively back all three MPAs. But most is not enough; the vote in October must be unanimous.
Absent from all the positive declarations by largely like-minded countries are the two with the strongest reputation for obstruction at CCAMLR: China and Russia. We can’t just preach to the choir in Washington and Brussels; the real battle for Antarctic marine protection needs to be waged at the highest political levels in Moscow and Beijing. And in these last few months before the meeting this “diplomacy on ice” needs to intensify. Our campaign is calling on CCAMLR members to deploy all their diplomatic and economic clout and get every single member state on board.
At the height of the Cold War, bitter rivals united to protect the continent of Antarctica for all humanity. Coming together now to extend that vital protection to the precious waters that surround it would be an equally momentous act of global peace-building as we emerge from a brutal pandemic. That’s why we are mobilising political leadership by rallying massive public support behind the #CallOnCCAMLR campaign to protect the Southern Ocean and a global petition that will be handed directly to world leaders ahead of the meeting. The vote on the MPAs will be a moment of truth for post-pandemic multilateralism and a clear indicator of whether the international community is fit for purpose to take concrete, joint action to deal with the climate emergency.
We are all honorary citizens of Antarctica and everyone is invited to add their voice to the call for Southern Ocean protection in 2021.
When they meet in October, the countries charged with governing Antarctica have the chance to protect 4 million square kilometers of uniquely important ocean and iconic marine wildlife and boost our planetary defenses against climate change. We call on all CCAMLR member states to seize this historic opportunity.