I can remember 1959 as well as anyone who was a two-year-old at the time: Alaska, Hawaii, and Barbie were born. So were Val Kilmer and Linda Blair. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died. So did Lou Costello and “Alfalfa” from the Little Rascals. When you can pass the torch from Alfalfa to Linda Blair, it’s obviously a turning point in history. But wait, there’s more. Castro took over Cuba. Eisenhower was president, and Kennedy was on deck. The Cold War was at its peak.

And when no one knew what an environmentalist was, what is arguably the most successful environmental agreement in history was formed.

The Antarctic Treaty speaks for a continent that most people rarely think about. There are no permanent human residents, so it’s hardly a hotbed of get-out-the-vote efforts from any nation’s political parties. For the record, there are no Burger Kings, Targets, Steak Houses, or Gap Stores.

On the bright side, this minimized the impact on the frozen continent when Circuit City and Linens n’ Things went belly-up.

For fifty years, the Antarctic Treaty has tamed a little piece of the Cold War, dissuaded toxic dumpers, kept out miners and other destructive businesses, and set aside a continent for science and international cooperation. Half a century later, the applause from millions of pairs of flippers stills echoes.

Twelve nations originally signed the treaty in 1959. It took full effect on June 23, 1961, when President Obama was a 32-week fetus (writer’s estimate). Today, the treaty has 31 full participants.

Key to the treaty was a ban on military use of the frozen continent. While the Arctic, and its strategic proximity to Russia and the U.S., has been a military focus before, during, and after the Cold War, Antarctica has been occupied mainly by penguins, scientists, and a growing army of tourists.

Though it’s still largely unexplored, there’s a general belief that Antarctica and its surrounding ocean are hiding a huge wealth of mineral resources: Oil, gas, coal, copper, molybdenum, chromium, platinum, and more. It’s off limits, not just to prevent damage to the fragile ecosystem, but to prevent the possible conflicts that could erupt when nations compete for them.

The centerpiece, and most recent addition, to the Antarctic Treaty is the Madrid Protocol. Negotiated and ratified through the 1990s, the Madrid Protocol sets aside the continent as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” An entire continent has been put out of harm’s way. Mostly.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition has monitored the treaty’s successes, and its potential threats. Executive Director Jim Barnes ran down the list of future risks: Increased pressure on fisheries around the continent; exploitation of krill, the tiny protein factories at the base of the food chain; continued whaling by Japan under the pretense of “scientific research;” and bioprospecting -- the search for new commercial and scientific uses for krill, mosses, lichens, and other unique life forms. The continent’s allure to tourists may also be a growing challenge.

Next week, Foreign Ministers from most of the Treaty nations will gather in Washington to look back on the treaty’s success, and look ahead to new challenges. An early December Summit will mark the actual anniversary. The date coincides with the U.N.’s Copenhagen Climate Summit, where the world will attempt to hammer out a more effective successor to the Kyoto Climate Accord. Kyoto has had, at best, a mixed record at limiting greenhouse emissions from industrialized nations, and it doesn’t touch developing greenhouse giants like China and India at all. Bringing everyone to the table is a tall order. But a half-century’s success in Antarctica is a precedent that it can be done.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)