WASHINGTON — The Obama administration today called for enhanced protection of the Earth’s polar regions, proposing mandatory limits on Antarctic tourism and urging increased environmental research there and in the Arctic.
Opening a two-week conference of parties to the 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the recent collapse of an Antarctic ice bridge was a stark reminder that the poles are gravely threatened by climate change and human activity.
“With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis,” she told the first-ever joint meeting of Antarctic Treaty parties and the Arctic Council at the State Department.
The bridge linking the Wilkins shelf to Antarctica’s Charcot and Latady Islands shattered over the weekend after two large chunks of it fell away last year. The shelf, formed by thousands of years of accumulated and compacted snow, had been stable for most of the last century before it began retreating in the 1990s.
Originally the size of Jamaica, the shelf on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula lost 14 percent of its mass last year alone, according to scientists who are looking at whether global warming is the cause of its breakup.
Average temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 3.8 degrees Farenheit over the past half century, the statement said — higher than the average global rise.
Clinton said the Antarctic Treaty — which also bars military use of the continent — could be a model for improved cooperation and coordination in the Arctic, which is not governed by a similar pact.
“The treaty is a blueprint for the kind of international cooperation that will be needed more and more to address the challenges of the 21st century,” she said.
Clinton also formally announced that the United States would be proposing mandatory limits on the size of Antarctic cruise ships and the number of passengers they bring ashore at the treaty conference, which begins later today in Baltimore and runs through April 17.