Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was created to enhance cooperation among many of the world’s countries in protecting the environment and resources of Antarctica.

Summary of Event

Because of its isolation and the unique features that result from its extreme environment, Antarctica has served as a laboratory for scientific research for many decades. Unfortunately, the continent’s isolation also led to its use as a military testing site and as a waste-disposal site during this same period. In 1959, the twelve countries then actively using Antarctica for scientific research established the Antarctic Treaty System Antarctic Treaty System in an attempt to protect the land and surrounding sea from military influence, including nuclear and other weapons testing and the disposal of radioactive waste. This treaty, which entered into force in 1961, constituted the first post-World War II arms limitations agreement. Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1998) Madrid Protocol (1998) Antarctic-Environmental Protocol (1998)[Antarctic Environmental Protocol] Environmental policy, international [kw]Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force (Jan. 14, 1998) [kw]Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force, Protocol on (Jan. 14, 1998) [kw]Environmental Protection Enters into Force, Protocol on Antarctic (Jan. 14, 1998) Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1998) Madrid Protocol (1998) Antarctic-Environmental Protocol (1998)[Antarctic Environmental Protocol] Environmental policy, international [g]Antarctica;Jan. 14, 1998: Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force[09920] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 14, 1998: Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force[09920] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 14, 1998: Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force[09920] Hawke, Robert Rocard, Michel

In 1989, the consultative parties of the Antarctic Treaty System tried to pass the Antarctic Minerals Convention, but the prime minister of Australia, Robert Hawke, announced that Australia was opposed to mining in Antarctica and would not sign the convention. Hawke believed that a treaty providing for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and its mineral resources would better serve the purposes of the consultative parties. In August of 1989, Michel Rocard, the prime minister of France, joined Hawke’s initiative to save the Antarctic environment and enforce the prohibition of mining. In lieu of the Minerals Convention, Hawke and Rocard suggested a more comprehensive protocol, and in 1990, under the influence of this Australian-French initiative, the consultative parties held a special meeting to reevaluate the treaty. The result of this meeting was the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was intended to improve the effectiveness of the Antarctic Treaty System.

The protocol was made available for signatures on October 4, 1991, in Madrid, Spain, to any member of the United Nations. It was subsequently brought to Washington, D.C., until October 3, 1992, for any additional signatures from any state that had been a contracting party. It was then opened for accession for any state. On December 15, 1997, Japan was the last of the original treaty signatories to sign the protocol, and it finally went into force thirty days later, on January 14, 1998.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty further established Antarctica as a place for peaceful scientific research. It created rules regarding the use of the land and surrounding ocean to ensure that contamination from past use would be cleaned up and to prevent continued pollution of the area. Representatives of nations that are signatories to the protocol can enter any of the research stations located on Antarctica for comparison of data as well as to ensure that the laws set up under the treaty are being obeyed. All of the signatories also help ensure that any countries that have not signed the treaty but intend to carry out research or travel in Antarctica follow the laws regarding the maintenance of a safe and clean environment.

The protocol designated Antarctica as a natural resource devoted to peace and science in the interest of all humanity. It also encouraged research for understanding the global climate of the past, present, and future. The protocol limited the research techniques allowed on the continent to ensure that the environment would not be affected negatively and required that scientists in Antarctica monitor all effects of their work on the environment. All groups that intend to visit or work in Antarctica are required to provide advance notice and to have maps of all the protected areas they are visiting as well as the regulations pertaining to each site.

The protocol also established emergency action plans in case of any accidental contamination of the Antarctic environment. The results of all cleanup processes are shared with all of the signatories in order to increase the speed and effectiveness of cleaning up spills and to identify potential risks during other projects. Research data are also shared among the signatories to reduce the impact of overlapping research in any one particular area.

In addition, the protocol called for the protection of the local flora and fauna on the ice sheet itself as well as in the surrounding ocean. This means that no flora or fauna are to be killed for any reason, and samples can be exported only in quantities that will not harm the remaining flora and fauna. The sole acceptable reason for export of samples is scientific research. The protocol also prohibited any activities related to Antarctica’s mineral resources except for those conducted for scientific purposes.

Another concern of the protocol is the disposal of waste. It established waste-disposal sites and specified the nature of those sites, and it called for the cleanup of wastes from previous expeditions as well as any subsequent visits. Wastes can no longer be burned in the open air; they must be burned in secure locations away from any protected sites. All waste from work sites must be disposed of in proper containers outside Antarctica. Any waste released or dumped from a ship must be released away from the coastline while the ship is under way and sieved through a net to guarantee that only small debris is left behind.


The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty addressed the global importance of the Antarctic environment and acknowledged the need for the continent’s protection against the effects of increasing human activity. Through the Antarctic Treaty System, countries all over the world have been able to work together to ensure the protection of Antarctica. Because Antarctica is the only place in the world that does not have a government to regulate its land and ocean use, the protocol’s protection of the continent as a peaceful, scientifically important environment is magnified in importance.

Without the protocol in place, Antarctica would have continued to be used for the monetary and military gain of several leading countries, and pollutants and wastes would have continued to build up on the continent. The protocol’s protection of the flora and fauna on and around Antarctica has been vital for the preservation of the equilibrium of the southern oceans and landmasses.

In addition, the protocol has protected the continent’s value for scientific research. For example, the Antarctic ice sheet has recorded Earth’s climate over at least 650,000 years, and by studying past climatic changes, scientists can begin to predict future climates through modeling. Without the preservation of Antarctica, this information would be lost. The protocol has led to additional scientific support for and interest in Antarctica internationally, and questions about past, present, and future environments are starting to be answered. Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1998) Madrid Protocol (1998) Antarctic-Environmental Protocol (1998)[Antarctic Environmental Protocol] Environmental policy, international

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkman, Paul Arthur. Science into Policy: Global Lessons from Antarctica. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 2002. Gives a history of the exploration of Antarctica and discusses the progression of the Antarctic Treaty System, including the Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansom, James D., and John E. Gordon. Antarctic Environments and Resources: A Geographical Perspective. New York: Longman, 1998. Discusses the Antarctic environment and interests concerning the Antarctic ice sheet and surrounding ocean. Looks at humankind’s effects on the natural world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vidas, Davor, ed. Implementing the Environmental Protection Regime for the Antarctic. Boston: Kluwer, 2000. Collection of essays addresses the implications of the Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection in terms of several implementation practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watts, Arthur. International Law and the Antarctic Treaty System. Cambridge, England: Grotius, 1992. Discusses the legal implications of the Antarctic Treaty System. Addresses the original document in 1959 and the subsequent treaties and regulatory measures thereafter, especially in regard to the contribution to international law.

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