EU should step up research in Antarctica

A treasure trove of scientific opportunities, the frozen continent faces threats from climate change and a possible race for resources. Time to consider creating a European Antarctic Agency to advance research and protect the environment, says European External Action Service expert Didier Schmitt


We do harm to our planet, as is visible even in a remote place like Antarctica.

On my recent trip there, when I joined a winter-over crew in the French-Italian Concordia research station, I saw the slow-moving effects of manmade climate change first hand.

I saw hundreds of penguins chicks die during my stay - not one will survive this year - due to continental ice sheet melting (it freezes faster than seawater) and anticyclone weather conditions. I saw how pollutants are showing up in local birds and seals, and learned about the risk this poses to incredibly rich fauna under the icy waters around the continent.

The Antarctic Ocean is home to more species than anywhere else. But the 1.5 degrees increase in water temperature will definitely disrupt this life, as those species have adapted to specific conditions for millions of years.

Reading about this is one thing, but experiencing it is another.

A month ago I walked on morainic soil where no one else has set foot before, because it is the first time that the ice has melted to the ground.

I was able to stand on a glacier wearing just a tee-shirt, in the hottest weather ever experienced by the scientists I met.

I myself experienced several days at plus-3 degrees, a temperature supposed to be exceptional in that part of the world, but which has occurred a few times over the last years. Without sunscreen you would get sunburn in less than an hour, because of the ozone hole.

Dwindling interest

One reason we do not think or care more about Antarctica and its ocean is because it is at the bottom of the world; down there on a map where no one looks.

This is a mistake as the continent is the repository of climate memory (the oldest ice is 1.5 million years old) and also the best indicator of long-term change.

It is also a global commons: a symbol of what we can achieve together, if we work to protect the only nearly-pristine part of our planet.

Since the International Geophysical Year in 1959, which marked a new era of research collaboration in the world, nearly 40 scientific stations have been opened on Antarctica. A special treaty followed.

All of this was made possible thanks to a political will that we have since lost.

Despite further arrangements, with the 1991 Madrid Protocol confirming the peaceful and scientific use of the white continent, and despite international coordination bodies overseeing the region, all research activities up to now remain national, with the exception of the French-Italian Concordia base - although even research here is separately administered by both countries.

The current Madrid agreement runs out in 2048 and some countries are already contemplating the possible vast mineral resources that lie under its ice.

A bigger role for the EU

Because the peaceful, scientific work carried out on Antarctica is not something we can simply take for granted, I believe Europe as a whole ought to be more present in international fora dealing with the fate of the continent.

I also believe that the EU can be a forerunner for a more integrated approach to Antarctic research, given that what is lacking today is top down political coordination and an EU call for research proposals focused on Antarctica.

We need to coordinate ourselves, and why not via a specially-created European Antarctic Agency, similar to the European Space Agency?

Conservationists will tell you: time is short. A bigger effort in Antarctica requires political will, and with the EU desperately searching for positive messages for a public that has largely turned its back on Brussels, I think it is a challenge we should take up: who else is with me?

In dispatches from December through February, Didier Schmitt, of the European External Action Service, shared his thoughts on life, work and policy among researchers in the French Dumont D'Urville station and the French-Italian Concordia Station in Antarctica. His blog posts can be found here.

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Related subjects: Climate change, Climate research, Global warming, Antarctica