Since the beginning of the Antarctic Treaty negotiations, scientific research has been the main activity on the Antarctic continent. Both the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection highlight the importance of science and scientific cooperation in the Antarctic Treaty System. Article II of the Treaty reads: “Freedom of scientific research in Antarctica and cooperation to that end … shall continue”. According to Article III, the Parties agree to “exchange scientific observations and results on Antarctica, which shall be freely available”.
In addition to the original signatories, only countries demonstrating an interest in Antarctica “by carrying out important scientific research there” may participate in decision-making (Article IX.2). Article 2 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”.
Antarctic science has led to advances such as the discovery of the ozone hole (1985) and the retrieval of climate data from the last hundreds of thousands of years. Scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is vital to understanding natural variability, the processes that govern global change, and the role of humans on Earth and the climate system.
Therefore, the international Antarctic community came together to identify the highest priority scientific questions that researchers should aim to answer in the next two decades and beyond. In April 2014, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) convened 75 scientists and policy makers from 22 countries to agree on these priorities. This was the first time that the international Antarctic community formulated a collective vision, through discussions, debates and votes.
The questions were grouped into seven themes:
i) Antarctic Atmosphere and Global Connections
(ii) The Southern Ocean and sea ice in a warm world
(iii) Antarctic Ice Sheet and Sea Level
(iv) Dynamic Earth – Sounding under Antarctic ice
(v) Antarctic life on the precipice
vi) Space close to Earth and beyond – Eyes in the sky
(vii) Human presence in Antarctica
Answering these questions will require innovative experimental designs, innovative technological applications as well as expanded observation systems and networks. In this sense, the development of interdisciplinary science, based on new models of international collaboration, will be essential as no single scientist, programme or nation can realize these aspirations on its own.