The protocol has been ratified by all 26 Antarctic Treaty member nations, and is now in force. The original 1959 Treaty has kept Antarctica free of conflict, but human pressures on the continent's unique environment have been growing rapidly from increased numbers of scientific research stations and tourist ships. As well as banning all oil and mineral exploration and mining, the new protocol contains a series of crucial safeguards on environmental impact assessment of all activities, waste disposal, marine pollution, specially protected areas and the conservation of wildlife. A committee on environmental protection will oversee its operation.
For WWF and the other environmental organisations that have worked together over many years - first to oppose the potential opening of mining and oil drilling in Antarctica, and then to push for the strongest possible international agreement to protect the whole Antarctic environment - final ratification is a major victory.
"Antarctica is the world's last great wilderness, a continent of awe-inspiring beauty, and a vital international scientific laboratory" declared Cassandra Phillips, WWF's International Treaties Coordinator. "The protocol goes a long way towards safeguarding Antarctica before it suffers from the human impacts felt over most of the rest of the earth. For once, the stable door has been locked with the horse still safe inside".
Antarctica represents about ten percent of the earth's surface, and plays a central role in regulating the world's weather patterns and ocean circulation systems. The surrounding seas support an amazing wealth of penguins and other seabirds, as well as fish, seals and whales. The pristine nature of the region provides unique opportunities for scientific research that is crucial to the understanding and monitoring of global climate change, ozone depletion and atmospheric pollution.
The 26 member nations of the Antarctic Treaty are Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.