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Antarctica – A Wilderness Continent for Science: The ‘Public’s Dream’ as a Mission Impossible?

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The Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty have frequently declared their collective ambition to manage Antarctica “in the interest of all mankind.” However, the concrete implications of these declarations are not clear. As part of an international research project, the authors asked people from different parts of the world to respond to a questionnaire about Antarctica, its values, and the way it should be managed. Notwithstanding differences in respondents’ nationalities, ages and the time of data collection, our results indicate that a significant proportion of the public values Antarctica both as a scientific laboratory and as one of the world’s last wildernesses.Is this ‘public’s dream’ of co-existence of science and wilderness a Mission Impossible? In this article, we contend that: 1) in theory, it is a Possible Mission that would connect well with the recognition of science and wilderness in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) instruments; 2) in practice, science in Antarctica has gradual and cumulative impacts on all three main wilderness qualities of Antarctica (absence of permanent infrastructure, naturalness and large size); 3) currently, the co-existence of science and wilderness is not an important consideration in the management of human activities in Antarctica; and 4) in the future, unless a proactive and concerted effort is taken by the Consultative Parties, it appears to be a Mission Impossible, as the expansion of scientific activities and associated logistics remains uncontrolled, inexorably eroding the Antarctic wilderness. Recent ATS resolutions and high-level interventions may signify that Treaty Parties are becoming more aware of the need to increase their cooperation on the ground in Antarctica and hence, open up a space to allow the coexistence of science and wilderness in Antarctica to become possible. We propose the adoption of principles providing clear and concrete guidance on scientific facilities and international cooperation as a constructive step forward in realising the ‘public’s dream’ of coexistence of science and wilderness in Antarctica.


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