“Great expectations” for Swedish Antarctic conference

A two-week conference on the Antarctic, focusing on environmental, climate change and tourism issues, opened on Monday with representatives of 50 governments, researchers and experts, the Swedish hosts said.

The conference, which runs to June 17th, comes amid fresh warnings from scientists about the effect of climate change on Antarctica, the fifth largest continent in the world, which contains more than 90 percent of the world’s ice.

Sweden hopes that the meeting will result in a special protocol on responsibility and insurance in the case of major accidents in the Antarctic, such as oil spills.

“It seems that there are great expectations for our discussions,” Swedish environment minister Lena Sommestad told the TT news agency on Monday.

Other topics are the environmental impact of increasing tourism in the Antarctic.

“We believe that it is important for people to visit the Antarctic, but it is also important that we are aware of the consequences,” Sommestad said.

Recognizing the special role the Antarctic plays for the world’s climate, a treaty was signed by 12 nations in 1959 stipulating that it is in “the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

The treaty now has 44 signatories, of which 27 are full members controlling the decision-making process.

A number of countries, including Argentina, Chile and Britain, claim territory in Antarctica as their own, but the treaty calls for sovereignty issues to be put aside, and they will not be discussed at the conference.

Last month, scientists again sounded an alarm bell on the effect of global warming on Antarctica, saying that more than 200 coastal glaciers are in retreat because of higher temperatures.

Of the 244 marine glaciers that drain inland ice on the Antarctic peninsula, a region previously identified as vulnerable to global warming, 87 percent have fallen back over the last half century, according to research by British experts.

It is unclear whether the man-made “greenhouse effect”, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is entirely to blame, they said.

If even a small part of this cap melts, rising sea levels could drown low-lying island states, cities and deltas, they warned.