10th June 2021 | Environment, Press Releases

Ireland and the Antarctic Treaty: the importance of joining a global community


Antarctica is a remote and mysterious continent, conjuring up images of penguins and frozen wastes. First sighted by Irishman Edward Bransfield in 1820, it was a further 75 years until a human footprint marked its pristine, inhospitable surface. Since then, it has been a frontier for exploration and science, its extreme conditions and frozen timeline yielding information on our planet and its climate.

Extreme it is, as it is home to the coldest, driest, and windiest places on earth. The South Pole experiences six months of daylight, followed by six months of darkness. It is estimated that 70% of the earth’s freshwater exists in frozen form on the continent’s landmass.

With no indigenous human population, Antarctica’s role in climate change is paradoxical: it is passive, contributing nothing to human mediated factors, while its vast stock of land ice and its nexus regarding biological and climactic systems accords it a crucial role in the welfare of planet earth.

Irish people have played significant roles in the exploration in Antarctica. Names such as Tom Crean, the McCarthy brothers, Patsy Keohane or Robert Forde are associated with pioneering expeditions, while Ernest Shackleton stands as a colossus on the world stage. Shackleton’s expeditions set out with scientific and exploration objectives and returned as triumphs of leadership and resilience. He died in January 1922 and is buried on the Antarctic Island of South Georgia.

Irish people continue to work in Antarctica, participating on various scientific projects facilitated by members of the Antarctic Treaty System.

Arising out of the 1957/58 International Geophysical Year, an agreement was proposed to govern Antarctica, prioritising scientific research and the dedication of the continent to the betterment of humankind. This science driven treaty has prevailed in the sixty years since June 1961, protecting Antarctica through the Cold War, the advent of atomic weapons and recent pressures on marine life and mineral extraction.

Participation in the Antarctic Treaty System has grown from the original 12 signatories to include countries representing 80% of the world’s population. Ireland, as a non-signatory, is increasingly identified as an outlier with no mechanism to influence the future of Antarctica, and no official route to participation in research conducted there.

For many years I have been attended and supported the Shackleton Autumn School, an annual event organised by the Athy’s Community Heritage Centre that has led the campaign to raise awareness of the Antarctic Treaty. In 2020, I facilitated Minister Malcolm Noonan’s participation in the event where his discussion on Ireland and the Antarctic Treaty was warmly welcomed by the wide range of local, national and international ‘virtual’ attendees.

Minister Noonan’s announcement in Athy on Tuesday, June 8th, regarding Ireland’s intention to progress its membership of the treaty marked a significant step in the effort to join a global community to influence a global issue. The fact that the Minister chose to make this announcement beside the statue of Ernest Shackleton completed the gestalt, intertwining heritage and history, past and present, climate and community.

Cllr Colm Kenny

Kildare County Council