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The ice-free areas of Antarctica comprise less than 2 per cent of the total land area of the continent. These areas are largely found on the continental coastline (particularly in the Peninsula area) and on the islands south of 60. The ice-free areas are biologically active sites with relatively easy access. They are therefore also the focus of increasing human activities and infrastructure. Threats to Antarctic land arise from this human activity, and threats to the ice sheets arise both as a result of this activity and, more importantly, from global climate change.

The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection

The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1998. The signing of the protocol significantly strengthened the environmental objectives of the Antarctic Treaty. It requires, among other things, that all activities be planned and conducted so as to limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems. The Madrid Protocol also defines a framework for protected areas, enabling special protection of unique, important or especially vulnerable areas.

It is yet too early to assess the effectiveness of the provisions of the Madrid Protocol. However, some environmental measures adopted since the Protocol have already proved efficient. For example, in 1992 the National Antarctic operators developed guidelines for fuel handling and emergency response. Since then, a gradual decrease in the number of reported incidents per year has been recorded, indicating that these recommendations are being implemented and are effective (COMNAP 2000a).

The risks associated with human uses of ice-free areas are related to potential local pollution due to oil spills, deposition of combustion products and sewage, habitat loss, terrain modification, disturbance to wildlife due to operations and human presence and introduction of exotic species and disease. However, so far little is known about the long-term and cumulative significance of these impacts.

There are now 70 research stations in Antarctica; half operate throughout the entire year and almost half are located in the Peninsula region (COMNAP 2000b). Few are located in ice-covered areas. Half of today's operative stations were constructed before 1970. In addition to this scientific activity, tourism in Antarctica is also increasing.

Ice covers 98 per cent of the Antarctic continent. The mass balance of this Antarctic ice sheet is of global concern, particularly in view of the impact on sea level of ice melting. The mass of ice is growing over most of East Antarctica although coastal regions tend to be near balance with some losses around some of the large ice shelves and coastal ice streams (Budd, Coutts and Warner 1998). The ice masses of Antarctica are therefore increasing rather than decreasing on a continental level (Vaughan and others 1999). However, the ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula continue to disintegrate because of regional warming. A total area loss of 6 300 km2 was observed for the Larsen ice shelf between 1975 and 1998 (Skvarca and others 1999) and an additional 1 714 km2 was lost during the 1998-99 season. Iceberg break-up is consistent with global warming but is not a proof of it. Melting of marginal ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula is, however, not expected to have significant and direct effects on sea level (IPCC 1998).