United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Polar Regions

The Antarctic

Antarctica is the coldest continent. It is also the driest, windiest, and cleanest. It is approximately 14 million square kilometres in area, about one tenth of the earth's land surface. The Antarctic continent is surrounded by one of the world's largest and stormiest oceans. (See Figure 2.26.) Less than 1 per cent of the land surface is ice-free (Fox and Cooper, 1994). During the winter, the area covered by ice is almost doubled as the sea freezes over. This fluctuation is the largest seasonal physical process on earth.

The Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean play a critical role in the global environmental system. The interactions between atmosphere, oceans, ice, and biota that take place in the region affect the entire global system-influencing biogeochemical systems, atmospheric and oceanographic circulation patterns, the transport of energy and pollutants, and changes in sea level. The Antarctic is therefore a high priority for protection.

Antarctica is the least populated and least industrialized continent. For more than half the year, during winter, it is virtually devoid of any human activity. During summer, the only land-based activity is related to scientific research and a small amount of tourism. Both are highly localized. The continent is managed on a co-operative basis by the Consultative Parties to The Antarctic Treaty, which has been in force since 1961. Through the Treaty, the region south of latitude 60°S has been dedicated to science and peace.

In 1996, UNEP prepared a report entitled The Question of Antarctica: State of the Environment in Antarctica on behalf of the United Nations Secretary General. The report was presented to the 51st Session of the General Assembly in 1996 (General Assembly, 1996). Portions of this section are drawn from that report, with specific information and data sources individually cited and referenced. No comprehensive state of the Antarctic environment report has yet been written, although the preparation of such a report is currently being considered by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research.

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