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U.S. Antarctic Program Environmental Stewardship

Protection of the environment has high priority for nations that operate in the Antarctic. The Antarctic Treaty System, with its Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Fauna and Flora (1964) and its Protocol on Environmental Protection (1991), prescribes comprehensive protective measures.

The U.S. Government is pledged to uphold these principles. NSF operates the U.S. Antarctic Program in accordance with U.S. and international requirements regarding protection of the environment. Following are summaries of the treaties and laws that apply to Antarctica and of recent actions taken in the U.S. Antarctic Program.


The Antarctic Treaty (1959) sets aside Antarctica for peaceful purposes and provides for freedom of scientific research, information exchange, and international cooperation. The Treaty prohibits military fortifications, nuclear explosions, disposal of radioactive waste, and testing of weapons. The United States is an original signatory.

The Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora (1964) provides for protection of native birds and mammals and plants of Antarctica and sets up a system of protected areas which require a permit for entry. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972) provides for enhanced protection for Antarctic seals. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980) ensures that all harvesting and research activities are conducted in accordance with the objectives of conservation and rational use. This convention is one of the first international fisheries management organizations to place an emphasis on an "ecosystem approach."

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991) provides for the protection of the antarctic environment through a series of annexes on marine pollution, fauna and flora, environmental impact assessments, waste management, and protected areas. The Protocol prohibits all activities related to mineral resources other than scientific research. On 2 October 1996, the President signed the Antarctic Science, Tourism, and Conservation Act of 1996 (PL 104-227), which implements the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The Protocol and the first four annexes entered into force on 14 January 1998. Annex V on Area Protection and Management entered into force on 24 May 2002. Annex VI, Liability Arising From Environmental Emergencies, was adopted by the 28th ATCM in Stockholm on 14 June 2005 and is being ratified by the Consultative Parties.

The Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978 (Public Law 95-541), as amended by the Antarctic Science, Tourism, and Conservation Act of 1996 (PL 104-227) and the regulations issued under it, govern the taking of fauna and flora; entry into protected areas; introduction of nonnative species; material management and waste disposal; and use of designated pollutants. A permit system enables investigators to apply to collect specimens and enter protected areas for compelling scientific purposes. The system provides for public comment on each application.


NSF requires every scientist proposing research in Antarctica to analyze the environmental impact of the proposed project. NSF carefully reviews the proposal and does not give approval unless the project (sometimes modified for this purpose) complies with antarctic environmental standards.

All activities within the U.S. Antarctic Program, including scientific research, science support, construction, operations, logistics, and facilities maintenance, are subjected to environmental impact assessment specific to the proposed action or governed by a program-wide environmental impact statement issued in 1980 and revised in 1991.  NSF administers the Antarctic Conservation Act permit system, which enables qualified scientists and educators to obtain access to fauna and flora and specially protected areas. Public comment is solicited on each application via the Federal Register. Permits applications and permits issued are public information.

The NSF produces and disseminates information to educate U.S. Antarctic Program participants about their environmental protection responsibilities in Antarctica and the penalties for noncompliance. Audiences include USAP participants and nongovernmental entities such as tourists, tour operators, and adventurers. All program participants sort and recycle waste at their work sites and their living areas. Waste management is now a "cradle-to-grave" function that has been integrated into U.S. antarctic operations from procurement to disposal. Projects are underway to reduce the use of fossil fuel. These include the use of alternative energies such as solar and wind power, particularly at field camps.

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(Last updated: 20 August 2008)

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