Written by Jane Rumble, Head of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Polar Regions Department and Deputy Commissioner for the British Antarctic Territory.
2020 is an important year. It marks 200 years since the discovery of the Antarctic continent. Having dedicated over 16 years working on Antarctica I am still amazed by this unique region and am passionate about its protection.
In late January 1820, and within days of each other, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (Russia) and Edward Bransfield (UK) sighted what we now know is the coldest, windiest and driest continent.
Those that know me will know I am a geographer and definitely not a historian! But I recognise the importance of marking the discovery of the seventh continent. Not least because it provides a great opportunity to highlight how much has changed since the discovery of these new lands.
200 years ago, we knew nothing about this continent and unfortunately, the first human reaction upon discovery was one of exploitation. The abundant population of seals was decimated in a few short years and later whales suffered a similar fate. It took nearly 100 years to begin in earnest programmes to learn more about this new continent and even longer to set in motion efforts to protect it.
In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed, preserving the continent as a place for peace and science, and this remains one of the most successful and enduring international agreements. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Protocol on Environmental Protection have subsequently established the frameworks for the conservation and protection of the continent’s marine and terrestrial environment. There is, however, still much that all those with an interest in this amazing continent need to do in order to ensure the ongoing protection of the Antarctic environment, especially as it becomes warmer and more accessible.
The Antarctic is a unique global laboratory and a barometer of the global impacts of climate change. Antarctica drives the global ocean and atmosphere and is fundamental to understanding the planet. In addition to all the exciting events we are supporting throughout this year with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the British Antarctic Survey, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Scott Polar Research Institute, among many others, this November will also see the UK will host the next round of UN climate change negotiations, COP26 in Glasgow. We need to use the opportunity to showcase the UK’s world-class Antarctic science and to demonstrate that what happens in Antarctica really matters to the rest of the world, including the UK. Encouraging the articulation of the science by as many different voices as possible is more likely to make the strongest impact. That is why one of the ways the BAT Government is marking the 200th anniversary is by taking steps to enhance participation in Antarctic science and encourage greater diversity within the Antarctic science community.
We are supporting a Diversity in Polar Science initiative to promote and enhance Antarctic science opportunities to under-represented groups, including women, BAME, LGBT+, early career scientists. From the discovery of Antarctica 200 years ago, its visitors were overwhelmingly men for well over 100 years, with the first British female scientists working in Antarctica only from the 1980s. Going forward, however, I am a strong believer that only by fully supporting and embracing a wide diversity within our Antarctic community can we improve our understanding of Antarctica and make the best decisions to ensure its continued protection.
The 200th anniversary is a fantastic opportunity to educate and inform everyone on the importance of Antarctica, why we need to do more to protect it, and how what happens there will impact us all. I would like to sincerely thank everyone who works to understand and protect this amazing continent. I much look forward to continuing and expanding our collaboration in the year ahead.
Further information will be provided on events and activities to mark the 200-year anniversary on this site and also on our Twitter channel @GovBAT. So do please check back in to see where you can get involved or find out more.